History of Alpha Sigma Nu


On June 4, 1915, Father John Danihy, S.J., held the first ritual initiation of eleven undergraduate men of Marquette University and inaugurated the Alpha Sigma Nu Honor Society.(1) He told the students that they were chosen not on the basis of scholarship alone, but because out of all their peers, they best exemplified the meaning of Jesuit education.  These eleven students represented a dedication to scholarship in the search for truth, loyalty to the cause of Jesuit education, and service in promoting "all the various activities of the University and all laudable activities of the students and student organizations."   With much anticipation that the society would prosper and spread to other schools, the eleven students were instructed to "to band together those alumni who most fully understand and appreciate the ideals of a Jesuit education and to impress these ideals upon their fellow men."(2)  Upon receiving their solemn pledge to abide by these principles, Father Danihy presented each student with a key and certificate and welcomed them into the new fraternity.  Both the key and certificate bore the three Greek letters ASN and the eye of wisdom.  On the reverse side of the key were the member's name and the date of initiation.

Father Danihy came to Marquette University in 1899 as the school's first athletic director.  He also coached the football team for three years.  In 1902 he was transferred to St. Louis High School but returned to Marquette a decade later.  In 1914 Father Danihy succeeded the late Father John E. Copus, S.J., as head of the Journalism College and in 1915 became the first dean of Journalism.  Besides forming Alpha Sigma Nu, Father Danihy was responsible for establishing the Marquette Press, introducing the student weekly, the Marquette Tribune, which exists to this day, and establishing the college yearbook, the Hilltop.  He also formed Phi Epsilon, Marquette University's Journalism Honor Society, which may have given him some of the inspiration for creating Alpha Sigma Nu.(3)  His fine list of achievements in the cause of Jesuit education made Father Danihy an appropriate founder of the Jesuits' first academic honor society.

The rapid growth of honor society movements which Father Danihy recalled in his visits to other schools was reflected at Marquette University in the first two decades of the 20th Century.  A number of national fraternities, including Alpha Kappa Kappa and Phi Beta Pi (medicine), Delta Sigma Delta and Psi Omega (dentistry), and Banderole (economics) had chapters at Marquette before or shortly after Father Danihy initiated the first chapter of Alpha Sigma Nu.  Yet all of the honor fraternities established at that point rewarded academic excellence in specific schools.  There was no honor society at Marquette which recognized excellence in Jesuit education as a whole.

This lack of recognition has been cited by Alpha Sigma Nu alumni as one of the rationales for the group's formation.  In the first half of this century administrators of Catholic institutions of higher learning complained that their students were being systematically locked out of the traditional honor societies such as Phi Beta Kappa.(4)  A study by Neil McCluskey of Catholic school applications to Phi Beta Kappa from 1931 to 1958 seemed to verify that claim.  The first Catholic college to receive a Phi Beta Kappa chapter was St. Catherine in 1938.  The first Jesuit school recipient was Fordham in 1962.  Of the 23 Catholic schools considered during the period McCluskey examined, only two were awarded chapters, leading the author to respond that "the absence of certain distinguished Catholic colleges which by every criterion are blue-ribbon is perplexing."(5)  Catholic educators called the issue discrimination.  Their secular counterparts were more prone to blame poor academic standards among Catholic schools for the lack of recognition.  Whichever side had the better of the argument, anti-Catholicism in America is documented well enough to understand the Catholic college and university administrators' reaction when repeated attempts to woo honor societies onto their campuses failed. 

Early presidents of the Marquette Chapter:
Charles Cobeen, Peter Brooks

Upon the conclusion of the successful merger of Alpha Sigma Nu and Gamma Pi Epsilon in 1973, Alpha Sigma Nu's Board of Directors, Chapter members, and alumni embarked on a journey that would secure its position in the world of Jesuit education that Father Danihy had always envisioned: the preeminent honor society of all American Jesuit institutions of higher learning.  But the organization would go beyond Father Danihy's dream and begin to seek out Jesuit universities and colleges throughout the world.  In addition, with the merging of the two societies, the family of honored Jesuit educated alumni nearly doubled, which had the fortuitous result of increasing the funds Alpha Sigma Nu could spend on promoting Jesuit education.  Not only were the administrators of the Society better able to honor Jesuit education by recognizing the best students in its ranks, they were now able to use their combined resources to reward those who devoted their energies to preparing the nation's future leaders: the teachers, scholars, and administrators of Jesuit colleges and universities.  This final chapter briefly recounts some of the changes in Alpha Sigma Nu following the merger which allowed the Society to act as witness to the excellence of Jesuit education.

Some 450 years ago Ignatius Loyola began an order that stressed all Christians should strive for excellence in service to all humanity, all for the greater glory and honor of God.  Alpha Sigma Nu, in seeking the best of Jesuit education, requires that its members emulate St. Ignatius through excellence in scholarship, loyalty, and service.  This Ignatian heritage is as relevant as it was in 1915 when Father Danihy initiated the first eleven students into the Society.  A fitting answer to those who wonder how Alpha Sigma Nu will respond to the challenges facing Jesuit education in America in the next 25 years is provided by ASN Vice President Mary Bruemmer in her concluding remarks before the 1982 Convention:

  • The Key to everything which Ignatius accomplished was his intense love affair with God, and with Christ.  Because of this, there was no limit to how hard one would work and extend oneself in service -- one could always love more, do more, be more in response to what God had done for him and what Christ had suffered for him.  This closeness to God enabled him to find God in other people, in all created things.
  • Our Jesuit institutions are religious institutions -- communities grounded basically in faith in God and lived out practically in our faith in one another, in ourselves, and in a world which is ours to create and re-create.
  • Alpha Sigma Nu must be an integral part of this faith community -- committed to its goals and ideals of excellence, loyal to its principles, and ready to serve wherever needed, "all for the Greater Honor and Glory of God."(6)

(1) This date is taken from a surviving certificate of the original members of Alpha Sigma Tau found in the Alpha Sigma Nu records at Marquette University Archives.

(2) Constitution Original, Alpha Sigma Nu, Series 3, box 1, Constitutions. [hereafter all archival records cited are abbreviated in the following manner: ASN 3, b. 1., followed by the file folder title.]

(3) "Father John Danihy Dies," Milwaukee Journal, 14 February 1936.

(4) John Plunkett, "An Honor Society and How it Grew," Baltimore Sun, (17 January 1963).  Plunkett, who doubled as evening editor for the Baltimore Sun and editor of the Alpha Sigma Nu Newsletter cited the lack of recognition from secular honor societies as a possible reason for ASN's formation but noted, "this factor was discounted by officers of the Jesuit honor society who say that the standards of the two organization are different."

(5) Neil McCluskey, "Phi Beta Kappa and Catholic Colleges," America, 98 (22 February 1958), 597-598.

(6) Mary Bruemmer, "Keynote Address," 29 October 1982 (ASN 5, b. 3, National Convention, 1982), 10-11.