Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, November 1, 2000
Dangers in the concept of 'apostolic succession'


Past President Casper in his pre-inaugural speech referred to the installation of the new university president as an example of "apostolic succession." Past President Lyman in his later address aptly noted that he never thought of it in these terms, even though presidents and bishops have as a common attribute a tendency to preach. There is indeed much charm and wisdom in tradition, in honoring those who came before us and in seeking to maintain continuity by building onto what they had built.

However, the dangers of the concept, and of the thinking that underlies it, to the university are real, and should not go unnoticed. The notion of apostolic succession has been used to justify claims of exclusive and superior knowledge, wisdom and rights, of infallibility and absolute power -- to the point of burning nonconformists at the stake, including philosophy professors like Giordano Bruno and university presidents, such as Jan Hus. The underlying image has always been that of tending a flock of (mindless) sheep. There have been disturbing signs of similar thinking in recent administrations, elevating conformity and the simple rules of accounting to a political, if not religious, doctrine. The threats to civil liberties -- notably the freedom of speech -- that have resulted from this trend are ably described in a recent book, The Shadow University -- Betrayal of Liberty on American Campuses, by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate (Harper, 1999), documenting examples from many American universities, including Stanford.

Yet neither the faculty nor the students of a major modern university are a flock of sheep. The rising tendency of some administrators to treat them as such will only deter the best minds from serving on university faculties. This may increase the number of startups and spur the economy, but in the long run it will destroy the university. Before the concept of apostolic succession logically leads us to presidents by the Grace of God who proclaim their infallibility, before the Stanford logo, to be truthful, has to be recast as "Die Luft der Freiheit weht nicht mehr" (the wind of freedom blows no more) -- perhaps we should remember another time-honored tradition, practiced at Harvard. Well into the late 20th century, each of its presidents signed his letters and notices to the faculty: "Your obedient servant." John Hennessy did find the right words by calling his speech an invitation to a dialogue and addressing the audience "Faculty Colleagues." His invitation deserves to be accepted.

Professor of Molecular Pharmacology
Director Emeritus
Stanford Magnetic Resonance Laboratory