• Southwestern University
    © 2021 Southwestern University

When Dr. Robert Sledge ’53 was in high school in the late 1940s, he failed a class and couldn’t join the National Honor Society. His parents, at the time, were exasperated, but Sledge graduated and moved on to junior college, and then transferred midterm to Southwestern University in January 1951.

At Southwestern, Sledge, who was in the top 10 percent of his class, was inducted into the Alpha Chi National College Honor Society. 

“When I was invited to join Alpha Chi, I thought, ‘this is the summit of my existence,’” said Sledge. “It can’t get better than this.” 

Alpha Chi is an honor society that was founded at Southwestern in 1922. To join, students must be in the top ten percent of their class, and be of good character. Alpha Chi holds a reputation for inclusivity, and accepts students from all academic disciplines. The organization publishes a peer-reviewed journal for undergraduates and offers opportunities for students to present their work. Alpha Chi also offers several scholarships.

To celebrate the centennial of Alpha Chi’s founding, Southwestern University is hosting a ceremony to commemorate the occasion on February 22, 2022, from 4 to 5 p.m.

The event will be held outdoors between the Cullen Building and Mood-Bridwell Hall. Lara Noah, the executive director of Alpha Chi, will emcee the reception and Dr. Robert Sledge will be the guest speaker. Dr. David Jones, the president of Alpha Chi’s national council, will present Southwestern University President Laura Trombley with her certificate of honorary membership. The ceremony will also include the presentation of Alpha Chi’s founding documents from Southwestern’s archive, and a commemorative plaque will be dedicated to the campus in honor of the occasion. Light refreshments will follow. 

The origins of Alpha Chi can be traced back to 1915, when Southwestern’s president, Charles McTyeire Bishop, founded the Southwestern Scholarship Society. Six years later, in 1921, Southwestern Professor John C. Granbery was approached by Harry Benedict, then a dean and later president of the University of Texas. The preeminent honor society at the time was Phi Beta Kappa, but it had few chapters, so the two scholars set out to create an honor society that included more Texas students.

In February 1922, prestigious four-year colleges in Texas were invited to a meeting at Southwestern to form an honor society of their own. By 1923, this organization became the Scholarship Societies of Texas. A few years later, when schools from Louisiana and Arkansas joined, the organization renamed itself as the Scholarship Societies of the South. In 1934, after further expansion throughout the country, it was renamed again as Alpha Chi. 

As Alpha Chi established itself in the mid 1900s, Sledge was accumulating degrees. He graduated from Southwestern in 1953, majoring in math and physics, and then was drafted into the army. After serving his two years in the military on an anti-aircraft battery on the East Coast, he returned to Southwestern for a bachelor of arts in history, graduating for a second time in 1956. He went on to get his bachelor of divinity at Southern Methodist University, and then a master’s and doctorate degree in history from the University of Texas. 

“I may not be very smart, but I’m well-educated,” said Sledge.

He had little contact with Alpha Chi until 1969, when he was working as an assistant professor of history at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. When the head sponsor of the chapter there left, Sledge took over. 

From the late 1960s onward, Sledge was involved in Alpha Chi’s rapid growth. It expanded from around 40 chapters to over 100, all over the country. In 1973, Sledge was elected to the national council. He became president from 1983 to 1987, and was elected to a second term from 1991 to 1999. 

“The most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in that kind of role was serving as president of Alpha Chi,” said Sledge. “It was the greatest experience of my life in that respect.” 

During his tenure, he worked to streamline the duties of the national council, shifted the organization’s administration from a one-person unpaid operation to a paid staff, and he brought the organization to financial security as the stock market boomed in the 1990s. He also wrote a lengthy history of the honor society.

Lara Noah, Alpha Chi’s executive director, began working with the organization in 1994. She describes the meetings in the ’90s, led by Sledge, as “iconic and lengthy and verbose.” 

“Alpha Chi has a long history with Southwestern University and remains proud of Chapter 1, Texas Alpha, that still thrives on campus nearly 100 years later,” said Noah. “The fact that Dr. Sledge, our primary historian, was also inducted there is a wonderful happenstance… Working with him in the ’90s was a highlight of my early years with Alpha Chi. His steadiness, wit, and wisdom were integral in molding many outstanding future Alpha Chi leaders, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for his many contributions.”

Today, Alpha Chi has chapters in 44 states, and has installed over 400 chapters.

The Southwestern chapter of Alpha Chi has inducted nearly 2,000 members since its inception. Currently, there are 59 active members. Dr. Jacob Schrum ’06, associate professor of computer science, serves as the chapter’s faculty sponsor. Schrum himself was part of the Southwestern chapter when he was a student.

Schrum has focused on raising the acceptance rate into Alpha Chi, hosting academic events to promote the organization and encouraging more students to attend the national convention, which in 2022, will be held in Austin from March 24 to 26.  

“The nice thing about Alpha Chi is that it’s very inclusive across all disciplines,” said Schrum. “You have to be a universal scholar to some extent… which is really in line with the whole liberal arts philosophy at SU.”