By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Ruth Hubbard Cousins, 86, who directed the national psychology honor society Psi Chi for 33 years, died Jan. 11 at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga, where she had lived since 1987. She had Alzheimer's disease.
Beginning as a secretary in 1958, Mrs. Cousins became executive director of Psi Chi and greatly expanded its reach among U.S. colleges and universities, making it one of the world's largest organizations devoted to the study of psychology. The society, founded in 1929, recognizes outstanding achievement by students of psychology and, in many ways, is the psychology equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa.
A vivacious woman with a lifelong love of learning, Mrs. Cousins was completing her bachelor's degree in psychology at George Washington University in 1958 when her faculty adviser recommended her for a part-time job with Psi Chi. She became the society's sole employee, with an office in the attic of the Washington headquarters of the American Psychological Association.
Originally planning to stay for only one year, Mrs. Cousins continued working at Psi Chi after the death of her husband in 1959. She quickly strengthened the standards for admission, transforming Psi Chi into a prestigious honor society with strict academic requirements. In 1965, it was formally recognized by the Association of College Honor Societies, the certifying body of honor societies. With chapters at more than 1,000 colleges in the United States and Canada, it is now the largest group in the association.
Mrs. Cousins, who assumed the title of executive director in 1969, traveled throughout the world, including to countries under Soviet domination, to promote the study of psychology. During her tenure, membership in Psi Chi grew from 25,000 to 221,000. (There are now more than 500,000 lifetime members.)
She developed awards for student research and began a lecture series at Psi Chi's annual meeting that included the leading thinkers in the field. B.F. Skinner spoke to the group six times.
"Ruth was a strong advocate for the importance of psychology education," Virginia Andreoli Mathie, the current executive director of Psi Chi, said in a statement. "She worked tirelessly to expand the reach of Psi Chi to more schools and to advise chapters on ways to increase student involvement in psychology."
In 1981, Mrs. Cousins and her daughter, Carol Tracy, founded Psi Beta, an honor society for students at two-year colleges. Faced with rising expenses and frequent office moves in the Washington area, Mrs. Cousins moved Psi Chi's headquarters to Chattanooga in 1987. She retired as executive director in 1991.
Edwin B. Newman, one of the founders of Psi Chi, wrote in a 1989 letter to Mrs. Cousins: "Far more than most people realize, Psi Chi is not what we founded, it is what you have made it."
Mrs. Cousins was born in Waleska, Ga., and grew up on a farm near Tifton, Ga. After high school, she moved to New York, where she studied at the City College of New York and met James Franklin Cousins, whom she married in 1941.
They lived in Durham, N.C., for several years and came to Arlington County in 1953, when her husband was named controller of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Soon after the move, Mrs. Cousins contracted hepatitis from an injection and nearly died.
She received a master's degree in psychology from George Washington in 1963 and later did doctoral work in psychology at American University. She enjoyed classic literature and for many years was part of a "great books" reading group in Arlington.
Mrs. Cousins received many honors from the American Psychological Association and other groups for her work at Psi Chi. She was a member of the National Press Club and served on the board of the American Society of Association Executives.
After her retirement, Mrs. Cousins cultivated an interest in history and genealogy and became a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also conducted an oral history project in Tennessee, interviewing 52 veterans of World War II for the Chattanooga Area Historical Association. The interviews are now in the collection of the Library of Congress.
In addition to her daughter, of Chattanooga, survivors include another daughter, Joan Cousins of Pittsfield, Mass.; a sister; three grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.