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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2006

Promoting and Maintaining Excellence in an Organization:
A Thorny Mission

Robert A. Youth, PhD, Psi Chi President, Dowling College (NY)

Suppose you have been a loyal member of an organization for almost 40 years. Suppose you also rise in the organization to the point where you become responsible for promoting excellence in the organization. How would you do this? What questions would you ask? What action plan would you advocate? Or, would you do nothing?

Excellence is a word associated with such things as being first-class, distinctive, the best obtainable, superior, above par, top-notch, perfect, exceptional, uncommon, unique, and even transcendent. Excellence certainly does not denote normal. Perhaps it is the attractive nature of the associations with the word excellence that leads it to often be a term that anyone marketing almost anything would like to attach to one's product or one's self. Herein lies the challenge for organizations and individuals--should excellence denote the highest standards being set and being maintained? Or, should the word merely be used as a "promotional lure" or a "personal enhancer" devoid of rigorous, operational meaning?

This article is aimed at getting you to think about assessment, promotion, and the recognition of excellence. I advance a challenge to you, not from a sales perspective, but rather from a position that all individuals in all organizations can work harder and can do better. Moreover, it is of great importance to any society that high performance standards be set and the leaders of societies challenge others to measure up.

The constitution of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, was drawn up in 1929 and it established a grade point average (GPA) of 3.00 as the defining standard for recognition as being an excellent student in the field. Over the years, the Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS) has actively stated that a distinction should be drawn between honor societies and "honorary" groups (the latter organizations being vanity entities selling "looks" rather than advancing a high regard for exemplary achievements that are difficult to attain). ACHS President Warren (2001-03) pushed hard for "credible" honor societies to have GPA admission standards no lower than 3.20. Psi Chi is currently not maintaining that standard.

Here are six points that you might want to consider if you are put in the position of being responsible for promoting organizational excellence (in whatever situation you might find yourself).

  1. Are you "benchmarking" against the acknowledged "best" in your field?
  2. Are you making assessments and decisions using sufficient "baseline" data?
  3. Are your "quality standards" keeping up with changing realities?
  4. Are you allowing "local entities" and "self-serving" rationales to dictate national quality standards?
  5. Are there "intraorganizational" conflicts between quality standards and revenue objectives?
  6. Do you really want to work to improve your organization's operational definition of excellence?
One past President of Psi Chi issued a challenge to each of us to consider being more rigorous. Wertheimer (1991) wrote about the obligations of excellence. In his message, Wertheimer underscored the points: (a) there should be an imperative for attaining excellence; (b) the highest standards should be sought; (c) the quest for quality is desperately needed; (d) membership in Psi Chi should denote outstanding achievement; (e) excellence demands talent and dedicated effort; and, (f) "the imperative of excellence is not a gentle, relaxed, or comfortable impulse (p. 7)." Asking questions about excellence might disturb the comfort levels some individuals have developed.

Benchmarking Against the Best
In the academic world, the awarding of honors is not a new phenomenon. Making the Dean's list at most colleges and universities requires a certain GPA. Graduating with honors requires the minimum attainment of a certain GPA. Getting into other prestigious honor societies such as Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and so forth requires a certain GPA. Would it be too much of a burden for our organization to state that a minimum 3.20 GPA should mark its bottom line definition of excellence? Is benchmarking against organizations that set such objectives acceptable? Are there individuals who believe that GPAs higher than 3.20 should be used as measures of excellence? Is a GPA of 3.00 an indicator of excellence in today's world? Why is this number still in Psi Chi's Constitution, and why do Psi Chi websites across the country still spit out 3.00 as our organization's standard for membership?

In a recent vote on a Constitutional amendment, over 50% of Psi Chi chapters voting favored making a GPA of 3.20 the minimum for Psi Chi membership. That vote, however, was not sufficient enough to amend the Psi Chi Constitution, and the Psi Chi National Council was opposed to raising the membership standards. In this context, some may believe that the statement about being in the top 35% of one's class takes care of the GPA problem. That just is not the case.

Baseline Data Used for Assessment
In making determinations about the level of achievement someone should attain in order to be designated as "excellent in some endeavor"--is more data a better baseline to use than less data? Would any graduate school accept a student on the basis of only 9 credits of work in any subject area? Should evidence of certain kinds of course work mastery be considered in a baseline assessment of an individual who will be designated excellent? Is an AP Psychology course, a second Introductory Psychology course, and a Developmental Psychology course (totaling 9 credits) a rigorous baseline standard for membership in Psi Chi? It is if you look at today's Psi Chi requirements.

It should also be noted that many colleges and universities DO NOT enter transfer course grades into their databases. The credits are counted but grades are not. This means that a transfer student can complete one semester at a new institution and the GPA for one semester becomes the standard that Psi Chi uses for membership purposes. Is that how we want to measure excellence?

Standards in a Changing World
Most students can recognize differences among themselves. If one student has a GPA of 3.19 and he or she has taken only three or four lower level courses in psychology--and another student has a GPA of 3.68 with course work in Statistics, Experimental Psychology, Physiological Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, and Cognitive Psychology Research--is there a distinction to be drawn between these two students and their levels of performance? Psi Chi currently does not recognize that difference.

Leadership and Its Obligations
When organizations talk about leadership, should leadership take the initiative to make sure quality standards are high and excellence is being defined in a rigorous manner? Or, should every chapter be able to set its own standards where some organizational entities clearly have much lower standards than other entities (Psi Chi chapters in this case)?

In a Psi Chi Thelma Hunt Research Grant Report, Ferrari and Appleby (2005) noted that almost one-third of Psi Chi members, in two separate samples, each reported that they graduated WITHOUT an overall scholastic honor such as at least cum laude recognition. The authors concluded that the overall academic records of Psi Chi members might be scrutinized better. I agree. At present, the Psi Chi National Office does not require "established" chapters to list on membership forms: (a) the overall GPA of each new inductee, and (b) the total number of credits that formed the baseline for each GPA calculation.

Revenues Versus Quality Standards
When an organization such as Psi Chi attains annual revenues of over $1,000,000 and it is literally a business with multi-millions of dollars in resources--is such a business entity going to allow membership standards to be made more rigorous? More rigorous membership standards could mean a diminution of members from over 20,000 per year to less--and such a drop in "customers" could mean a revenue drop. Could a factor such as this lead to the quashing of any effort to raise standards in an organization? I believe that this has become a very real factor being used to block the establishment of higher standards for Psi Chi.

If It Is Not Broken, Do Not Fix It
Most students join Psi Chi because they want to be recognized as being among the best in their field of endeavor. Moreover, Psi Chi is "still" recognized as being the organization that awards status to individuals who "apparently" excel in the field. Should that be enough for us to leave things alone and to maintain the status quo? Such a position is supported by some individuals, especially those who are currently comfortable "working the system." But, can complacency undermine the mission of Psi Chi which is to promote and to recognize excellence?
I ask you to think seriously about all of the above matters.

Ferrari, J. R., & Appleby, D. C. (2005). Alumni of Psi Chi: Does "membership have its advantage" on future education/employment? Eye on Psi Chi, 9(2), 34-37.

Wertheimer, M. (1991). The obligations of excellence. Psi Chi Newsletter, 17(4), 1, 6-7.

Warren, J. W. (2003). How to judge the credibility of an honor society. Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS), July Standards Alert. Retrieved October 25, 2005 from http//

Robert A. Youth, PhD, is a New York State licensed psychologist, who has been affiliated with Psi Chi for over 37 years. Dr. Youth earned a BA in psychology from Queens College (City University of New York). He completed his MA in psychology from East Carolina University. And, he earned a PhD in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Youth is currently a tenured Professor of Psychology at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York. He has completed 33 years of full-time teaching. During this time, his work has focused on performance assessment and performance management. Dr. Youth is also the Director of the Long Island Organizational Psychology Institute (LIOPI).

As a Psi Chi Regional Vice-President, Dr. Youth added innovations to the Psi Chi programs at the Eastern Psycholo-gical Association and the New England Psychological Association meetings. While on the National Council, Dr. Youth chaired the External Affairs Committee; he helped develop the then new Psi Chi website; he worked with the group that reviewed the development of the Psi Chi CD about career areas; he worked to establish food drives as a standing service area; he served on the Psi Chi Task Force that studied Chapter effectiveness; and, he worked on the 2002 External Evaluation of Psi Chi.

At a recent Psi Chi session at EPA in Washington, D.C., Dr. Youth outlined some of the goals that he has for 2004-2007 during which time he will serve on the Executive Committee and the Psi Chi Board as President-elect, President, and Past-President. Among the points that he made were: (a) the re-examination of the Psi Chi membership standards in light of recent American Association of College Honor Societies recommendations; (b) the development of a biennial Psi Chi Leadership Conference (as a stand alone event); (c) the improvement of the Psi Chi Website with respect to templates being available for Chapters to use to establish their own sites; (d) the development of resources to help Chapter officers (or other representatives) to attend Regional Conferences; (e) the use of the Eye on Psi Chi to include minutes of Psi Chi Board meetings; the results of elections; financial reports, etc.; (f) the development of an annual Psi Chi Thanksgiving Food Drive wherein 1,000+ Chapters could pool their efforts to help the needy (this effort being done in partnership with a targeted organization such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation); (g) greater use of the National Office site for Mid-Winter meetings, etc.; (h) the development of an Assembly of former Presidents of Psi Chi to use such a body as a resource for the organization (especially related to the Leadership Conference idea and special committees that are set up from time to time); (i) the clarification of Affiliate Chapter status in order to preserve the National character of Psi Chi; (j) the articulation of a clear policy related to resident sites of Psi Chi Chapters given the growth of cyber-technology and distance learning companies which do not have "brick and mortar" sites, plus, (k) the development of a Psi Chi "chat site" to facilitate intercommunication between Chapters.

Dr. Youth values having worked with both Ruth Cousins and Kay Wilson in the past. He also looks forward to renewing his acquaintance with Virginia Andreoli Mathie (Psi Chi's new CEO) since their time overlapped as graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lastly, Dr. Youth would like to acknowledge Dr. William Grossnickle (East Carolina University and a former Psi Chi VP) for starting him on his journey with the organization. According to Dr. Youth, when you devote your energies to building upon others achievements, it is always appropriate to recognize those who helped you along the way.

Copyright 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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