Antonian tributes for Professor Alfred Stepan

Alfred Stepan

Antonian tributes for Professor Alfred Stepan

5 October 2017

Below are a collection of tributes written by Antonians and former students of the late Professor Alfred Stepan (Honorary Fellow, St Antony's College).


Jeff Kahn (MPhil Russian and East European Studies, 1994-1996, DPhil Politics 1999)

Professor of Law and Gerald J. Ford Research Fellow at Southern Methodist University, USA

Al Stepan was a force of nature.  To be in his company, even for a short time, was an exhilarating experience.  When his attention focused on you, the feeling was of being at the center of things with a trusted guide. 

I was one of the many, many graduate students around the world who experienced his whirlwind of thoughts, arguments, and telling anecdotes.  My first exposure was in 1995 or 1996, when he came to St. Antony’s College, Oxford, to speak at one of the Monday Night Seminars hosted each term by the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (as it was then called; I was a graduate student there working under the equally extraordinary guidance of Professor Archie Brown).  Speakers presented their work with different styles; some read from prepared texts, others flipped transparencies on overhead projectors (the analog era’s PowerPoint).  Even during the most interesting of these lectures, I’m sure mine were not the only thoughts occasionally drifting to the glass of wine always promised at meeting’s end.

Al Stepan’s Monday Night Seminar was different.  He practically bounced down the steps of the hall with a jaunt and a smile powered by an almost irrepressible eagerness to share his findings.  He came with no written lecture and no transparencies, just a three-inch, three-ring binder in which he carried the draft of his latest book (with Yale’s Juan Linz), Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Johns Hopkins, 1996).  He shared stories from fieldwork and argued about theory and practice with the same energy and enthusiasm.  Agree or not, no one was thinking about the sherry. 

The Stepan whirlwind was not just experienced in large groups.  Its effects were also felt one on one.  But his calendar filled up quickly.  So it was not uncommon to meet in places other than his rooms at All Souls when he held the Gladstone Professorship of Government from 1996 to 1999.  I remember one afternoon when I was invited to the back garden of his home near the Maison Française on Norham Road to work through his comments inked all over one of my dissertation chapters.  All afternoon he worked with me, page after page thrust into my hands with his many suggestions (these were not phrased, I have to admit, as suggestions per se; I usually did what I was told, to my ultimate advantage).  At a certain point, Al pulled out a cigar but was visibly frustrated that he could find no matches.  I happened to have a book of matches in my coat pocket and handed them to him.  His face broke into a wide grin as he proclaimed me very well prepared for fieldwork.  I never told him the matches were there by accident. 

Although a former United States Marine, Al did not always seem to be a practical man in the everyday sense of the term.  When we prepared to leave his garden, I remember his wife, Dr. Nancy Leys Stepan, required that he check his pockets to make sure that he had his house keys and wallet with him.  He was very skilled, however, in the practical arts of academia.  At the late bar at St. Antony’s in the evening after a conference years later, Al asked me what I planned to do with the paper I had presented.  Well, I had promised it to the co-editors of a volume of collected work on the topic.  No, he commanded with a shake of his head, don’t wait for them.  Predicting years of delay waiting for the editing and publishing gears to turn, he urged me to send it out now as an article and update it later for the book.  Once again, I did as I was told and, of course, he was right again.  Five years passed between the article and that book chapter.

Al Stepan’s legacy extends beyond his many books and articles.  The careers he helped launch, guide, or encourage are underway throughout the world.  None of us will forget the time spent in his company.  He is greatly missed.


Tomila Lankina (DPhil Politics, 2001)

Professor, Department of International Relations, LSE

I received with great sadness the news of the death of Professor Alfred Stepan, a scholar who has made ground-breaking contributions to theorizing and empirical study of democratic change. I was extremely lucky to have been at Oxford not only at the time when I could benefit from the supervision of Professor Archie Brown, a leading specialist on Russia, but also during the few years that Professor Stepan served as Gladstone Chair of Government at All Souls College in 1996-1999.  Al—as he liked to be called—was then working on comparative federalism in the context of the democratization wave of the 1980s-1990s.  Al has done very much to enrich the intellectual life of students at Oxford, who, like me, were working on federalism and democratization. He was always happy to become an informal supervisor to students—I certainly count him as one of my key mentors at Oxford and the seminars we had with him at his office at All Souls college were some of my most memorable and lasting intellectual experiences I have had as a PhD student.

Al and I last met when he was on a brief stay in London earlier this year.  He and his wife Nancy asked me out for lunch in Hampstead Heath. As before, I was struck by Stepan’s boundless intellectual curiosity and energy—he told me about his trips to Tunisia and to Asia where lectured, mentored, gathered material for his latest book on Islam, and found inspiration for the many future intellectual endeavours that he was very much looking forward to.  In turn, I used this lunch—to use Al’s often-used expression—to “pick his brain” for my own book in progress.  I am forever grateful for the words of wisdom I received from both Nancy and Al during that memorable meal. 

One of Al’s greatest sources of pride were the literally dozens of books his students and mentees have published in the course of his academic career. After my last meeting with Al, I very much looked forward to sharing with him the intellectual excitement of bringing my book project to fruition. I will be proud to count my book among the many that have benefitted from Al’s words of wisdom.

Al will be greatly missed by his many students.


Claire Gordon (DPhil Politics, 1997)

Teaching Fellow in East European Politics, LSE

I was saddened to hear about the recent death of Al Stepan. Though I only had a few brief and fortuitous encounters with Al Stepan while a D.Phil student at St Antony’s College in Oxford University, he had a profound effect on my intellectual development, on my journey away from being a deeply rooted area studies Soviet/Russian specialist to becoming a comparative political scientist.

In the third year of my PhD under the supervision of Archie Brown, I had the good fortune to attend a term of co-led seminars in the hallowed rooms of All Soul’s where Al Stepan had been appointed Gladstone Chair of Government. This was in the mid-1990s when Russia was grappling with its post-Soviet inheritance and the prospects of a further fragmentation of the Russian Federation was a real prospect. Archie Brown and Al Stepan conducted the seminars with enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, generously opening up space for discussion, critique and analytical development for our cohort of doctoral students. For me it was eye-opening to hear Al Stepan modelling the comparative method drawing comparisons with Indian federalism to shed light on the situation in Russia. It was during these brief hours that I truly understood for the first time the affordances of the comparative method in political science.

I became further acquainted with the work of Al Stepan as I assumed an academic role at the LSE and found myself drawing on his seminal 1996 work Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation(co-authored with Juan Linz) in my teaching and his insights based on the study of comparative transitions with their broad comparative sweep enabled me to encourage my own students to see their application in a regional context. Al touched the lives of so many budding young academics through his encouragement, enthusiasm and scholarship. He will be greatly missed.