Origins of the Honor Society

By: William Olson, Ph.D., Past President, Pro-Term, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, School of International Service, American University

Background Rationale

While the question of whether "IS" is an academic discipline may remain unresolved, international studies has been around as a separate subject since the end of the First World War. And while most majors in the subject continue to be located in, or at least governed by, political science, consensus remains that this subject can best be understood and therefore studied from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The principal disciplines generally considered to constitute the core of international studies are political science, history and economics, yet geography and demography cannot be ignored. There are increasing signs of a return to the discipline of international law, which before the First World War was about the only discipline of international focus studies in universities by scholars seeking an understanding of the relations between states.

A more contemporary and fundamentally novel approach rejects the focus on inter-state relations and traditional diplomacy in factor of what is of the called world society or even 'the global village.' This perspective is based upon all the interrelationships of mankind across national boundaries. 'Statecentrism' tends to be ignored by such scholars, who have been referred to as 'globalists.' The globalist approach might be seen as an essentially sociological perspective.

In order to avoid the twin charges of dilettantism and smoregasbordization, IS academics have tried to introduce curricular organizations and examination requirements to the subject. Without some structure of required courses, different students who graduate with a major in international studies need have taken few, if any, of the same subjects, especially in large universities with hundreds of offerings related to the world affairs. Conventional disciplines have tried to control the definition of what constitutes an economist, a political scientist, or a historian, demanding successful completion of a specified course of study to that end.

The academic structure of IS ranges from professional schools of international affairs to interdepartmental committees governing the major. Some departments offer a strict emphasis in IS. For instance, a political science major seeking an IS emphasis might take courses from the economics and history departments. The intellectual demands of the IS discipline account for its appeal to only the best students. Recognition of this field calls for special attention.

Formation of the Society

In 1983, the dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C., observed during an initiation service for Pi Gamma Mu, the national political science honorary society [sic], that a high proportion of the new inductees were actually IS majors who had taken enough courses in political science to qualify for membership. A degree program in IS had been offered since 1958, but no society existed to recognize achievement of honors. Informal consultation among honor students and faculty agreed that a new Society for International Studies would be useful.

The dean sought the assistance of Professor Theodore Couloumbis to designate the appropriate Greek letters standing for three basic qualities of the study of international affairs. Sigma stands for "synesis," the Greek word meaning prudence, iota for "ideodoi," meaning ideals, and rho for "rhomi," meaning power. The School of International Service at American University endorsed this development with enthusiasm.

On the basis of the standard similar to those of Phi Beta Kappa, students with outstanding academic records were invited to become the first twenty members of Sigma Iota Rho. The first inaugural dinner for twelve students was held in Washington on May 9, 1984, with the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, alumni, staff and faculty, including the founding dean, in attendance. The society was certified as a "recognized organization of the American University" by the Advisor for Organizations/Greek Life, Gwendolyn P. Miller, on August 22, 1984.

Presentation to the International Studies Association

The next logical step was to present the idea to an informal gathering of the International Studies Association. The annual meeting of this group of teachers and other practitioners from diverse disciplines, although mostly from the political science field, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel located in Washington, D.C., in 1985 provided the opportunity. Roughly twenty-five people took part in discussion which revealed considerable interest. A striking feature of the comment from faculty members from various colleges and universities was that IS students tended to be among the most outstanding, but they possessed little sense of identity with the field of international studies. It was generally agreed to take the idea to form a society back to respective campuses for reaction, with plans to report at the next meeting of the ISA whether any interest was shown in Sigma Iota Rho.

By the time of the 1986 ISA annual meeting in California, some had already taken steps to form Sigma Iota Rho chapter. Attendance at the second informal discussion concerning the new honor society was nearly double that of the previous year.

A formal organizational meeting was held April 16, 1987 in the Palladium Room of the Omni Hotel in Washington. Roger Coate of the University of South Carolina was elected unanimously as the President of the meeting. Dean William Olson, also from the University of South Carolina, was chosen as Director of Sigma Iota Rho. Grant T. Hammond was selected President-elect. Twenty-six colleges and universities presented petitions for the establishment of local chapters.

On April 8, 1989, a Certificate of Incorporation was presented by Anne Piorkowsky to Angela Ford, Notary Public in the District of Columbia, who certified its acceptance.

Since this time, the location of SIR's National Office has been relocated. Most recently it was based at the James Madison University until 2002.

Since 2002, SIR's National Office has been located at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. Moreover, at this same time, Dr. Frank Plantan of the University of Pennsylvania became the organization's most recent president.

William Olson, Ph.D.

It is with deep regret that we report the recent passing of Dr. William Olson, founder of Sigma Iota Rho. The late-Dr. Olson embodied the mission of this organization. And his work as a pioneer and educator in the field of international studies has left an indelible mark not only on us, but the academic discipline and wider social sciences.

We extend our deep sympathy to his survived wife, Mrs. Betsy Olson, and his family. We also encourage you to visit the website below created in remembrance: