Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Golden Key Honor Society comes under fire for lowering standards

Washington University’s Golden Key chapter has denounced accusations that the Golden Key International Honor Society headquarters acts like a profit-hungry business, accepting unqualified students in exchange for their $60 initiation fee.

The international society offers college juniors and seniors in the top 15 percent of their class the opportunity to join the society in exchange for the one-time fee. According to WU Golden Key advisor Judy Sawyer, students at WU with a GPA of 3.5 or higher are invited to join.

The Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed Golden Key the “Dishonor Society” in a recent article that reported the society pads its profits by offering membership to thousands of students. According to the Chronicle, Golden Key, a non-profit organization, has a $2.5 million mansion headquarters, executive board meetings in Cancun, and a $10.9 million budget.

The Chronicle said that it in 1999, Golden Key founder Jim Lewis had a salary of $300,000. Lewis was dismissed from the society last summer due to “an unseemly pursuit of profit.”

“Jim Lewis’s salary was not $300,000,” said Sawyer. “I think it was about $40,000 or less than that. That’s just a guess. I really don’t know.”

Other members, however, are more jaded. Golden Key President Jonathan Buchanan’s initial reaction to the Chronicle article was one of “little surprise.”

“With any national organization, corporate or non-profit, there is room for corruption if any of these allegations are true,” said Buchanan.

According to The New York Times, Golden Key’s 13 corporate sponsors, including companies such as Ford and Merck, pay the organization $55,000 a year to gain access to its student database. Consequently, members are subject to mass-mailings of solicitations for credit cards and auto insurance.

“I do not think such a database exists,” said Sawyer. “I feel pretty strongly about that.”

While many students say they do receive frequent mailings, no one can prove what company has sold their names to solicitors.

“I get a lot of solicitations, mainly for credit cards, but I do not know where they are coming from,” said Buchanan. “I do not know if Golden Key is involved.”

Both Buchanan and Sawyer were unaware of the acceptance of under-qualified students into the society but were positive that this does not happen at WU. Buchanan suggests that universities in which unqualified students may have been admitted have yet to adjust their GPA calculations to account for grade inflation.

Within the weeks of the publication in The Chronicle, the chairman of Golden Key Society’s board, Carl Patton, resigned.

“There are certainly other honor societies that are jealous of Golden Key,” said Patton to the Associated Press before his resignation.

Golden Key has been rejected three times for entry into the Association of College Honor Societies.

“I was surprised,” said Buchanan of the rejections. “I suppose that other honor societies feel that Golden Key admits too many students and has loose qualifications in that invitation is based on GPA only. But Golden Key is meant to be more inclusive.”

More than 300 universities host Golden Key Chapters, and there are over a million people with lifetime membership.

“Golden Key is threatening to other honor societies because it is so large,” said Sawyer. “We have chapters in Australia, New Zealand, Canada-all over the world.”

WU’s chapter consists of over 800 members. Neither Buchanan nor Sawyer has heard a response from the regular members of the club regarding the allegations, but the executive officers have read The Chronicle article.

“Jim Lewis does not affect me at all,” said Buchanan. “My motivations as president are to get involved with social and service events and encourage members to participate. What is happening at headquarters has no direct effect on our local chapter.”

Other members agree that the scandal has not affected them.

“I feel like I’m very far removed from it because I haven’t received any solicitations or felt like I’ve paid that much money to be a part of it. As far as I can tell, I’m only in it based on my GPA,” said Kimberly Mitchell of her recent induction into Golden Key in March.

In addition to accusations of aggressive marketing for profit, Jim Lewis left Golden Key amidst rumors of indiscretions with Golden Key members.

“I was very surprised. I’m sure that there is a lot that I do not know about,” said Sawyer in regards to Lewis’s ousting from the society.

Buchanan disagreed, stressing how often corruption occurs in upper-level management.

He said that people “shouldn’t see this as something unique to Golden Key. At this level of the corporate world, this kind of thing happens. I’m hoping that the national office is taking steps to correct this problem. It is unfortunate.”

“The WU local chapter of Golden Key still stands firm in our commitment to academic excellence and service,” said Buchanan.

Contact Paige at paige.shamsi@studlife.com.

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