The Succession Ceremony for Vice-Chancellors

The succession ceremon 2020. Eva Åkesson hands over her duties to her successor Anders Hagfeldt.

The Succession Ceremony for new Vice-Chancellors at Uppsala University has looked roughly the same for centuries. As part of the succession ceremony, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor hands over the insignia of the Vice-Chancellor’s office – its symbols of power and responsibility – to their successor. These insignia are the sceptres, the seal, the Vice-Chancellor’s chain of office, keys, charters and the student register. If anything, the ceremony has actually become grander with time.

In the distant past, real keys were passed on to the newly appointed Vice-Chancellor – to the treasury, the archive, and the prison. Nowadays gilded keys from the day of King Gustaf III are used, from the late 18th century. The new Vice-Chancellor Eva Åkesson uses a swipe card, of course – but the symbols live on, more so at Uppsala University than at any other Swedish institution of higher learning.

‘The pomp and circumstance lie largely in the framing. When we speak of ancient traditions, we need to bear in mind that things were different in the 18th century. It was a simpler ceremony’, says Carl Frängsmyr, associate professor of history of science and ideas and author of the books about the history of Uppsala University.

For a long time the ties with the Church were strong, and all succession ceremonies for Vice-Chancellors took place in the Cathedral. After all, the Archbishop of Sweden was the Pro-Chancellor and part of the University leadership up to 1910.

In the past the succession of Vice-Chancellors was much more frequent. Up till the middle of the 19th century a new Vice-Chancellor was elected with every academic term. There were only about 25 professors in those days, so nearly all of them served as Vice-Chancellor at least once.

‘This reflects the principle of collegiality, which entailed both advantages and drawbacks. Not everyone was equally equipped to do the job, and some Vice-Chancellors had to be closely watched by the Bursar of the Academy’, says Carl Frängsmyr.

In the 19th century the Chancellor played a greater role in running the University than the Vice-Chancellor. The Chancellor was appointed by the king and the government following nomination by the University, and up to 1857 the assignment normally went to the crown prince. In other words, the University was governed by the crown prince and the archbishop, whereas the role of the Vice-Chancellor was to manage practical matters, such as correspondence. This was the order of things up to the end of the 19th century, when the Chancellor was assigned a different role, at the national level. The Vice-Chancellor was given more power and was appointed for longer periods.

The altered role of the Vice-Chancellor is also mirrored in the ceremony. Nowadays the incoming Vice-Chancellor usually delivers an address focusing on the future, whereas in the 19th century the outgoing Vice-Chancellor spoke about his period in office.

‘In those days, the Vice-Chancellor was a civil servant who expressed no personal opinions. The Vice-Chancellor’s address was a rather dry account of who had been appointed, who had died, and other events during the year.’

In a way the succession ceremony is more festive today, thanks to our access to the University’s Grand Auditorium and the Hall of State at the castles.

Living tradition

Uppsala University has kept its traditions alive, even when the winds from the political left were raging at their strongest in the 1960s, with many people criticising old-fashioned ceremonies.

‘This is largely ascribable to the fact that Torgny Segerstedt was Vice-Chancellor for such a long time, from 1955 to 1978. If there had been a succession ceremony for a new Vice-Chancellor in 1970, it is possible that it would have been more low-key’, maintains Carl Frängsmyr.

In recent years traditions have grown in popularity instead, and today they have an undisputed place in University life. The sceptres, the seal, the Vice-Chancellor’s chain of office, keys, charters and the student register continue to play a major role each time a new Vice-Chancellor takes office.

The insignia of the Vice-Chancellor’s office

The sceptres

Uppsala University has two sceptres. The oldest was used at the very first Conferment Ceremony on 22 January, 1600, and the second was made a year or so later. The Uppsala University sceptres are in fact Sweden's oldest preserved academic ritual objects.

The seal 

The University’s seal has the Latin inscription “Gratiae veritas naturae”. This can be translated as “Truth through the grace of God and through nature”. The seal started to be used widely in the mid-17th century and actually became so worn that a new one was made in the late 18th century. The new seal from the 18th century is the one handed over at the succession ceremony.

The Vice-Chancellor’s chain of office

The chain of office was gifted to the University by Oscar II in 1877 for the University’s 400th anniversary. The medallion in the chain also shows Oscar II’s image. The chain includes four faculty symbols that also serve as links, one for each of the faculties that existed at the University in 1877: the Faculty of Theology, the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Medicine, and the Faculty of Philosophy.

The Keys

In the past, real keys were handed over to the new Vice-Chancellor. These keys were to the treasury, the archives, and the prison. Today instead, two symbolic gold-plated keys from the 18th century are handed over during the succession ceremony.

The University’s charters and the student register

At the succession ceremony, two books are handed over which serve to symbolise two key but different parts of the University. The 1655 års konstitutioner (1655 Charters) symbolise the legal foundation on which the University rests and the oldest volume of the student register Album studiosorum from the end of the 16th century symbolises the students. 

Last modified: 2021-03-26