If one flips through the Oxford English Dictionary to page 1452 (compact ed.) and scans the lines between the headers from Institute to Institutrix, one will catch a glimpse of an alarmingly authoritarian structure. It is one imposed on society in many forms by many individuals and groups, even by ourselves. One of the many definitions of institute, one finds under b. of the 4th header, is “to ordain that something shall be, or something to be.” This is followed, a little further on in the derivations, by “regulation…the established order by which anything is regulated.” From there the text expands to describe the ends of civilization, conformity, religion, and the power exercised over both.

Michel Foucault explored the ends to which this prohibitive, homogenizing power can be put in his essay Panopticism. His concept of the ever-roving eye has, in fact, been in use for thousands of years, arguably since the beginnings of human civilization and, perhaps, before. This eye—whether it be actual, possible, or merely abstract—requires an institution of some sort to dictate what it watches for, what constitutes normal behavior and thought. An institution then, from what we see in the definition, also necessitates some degree of panopticism; in order to institute and then maintain a norm, there must be psychological enforcement. Physical force or social stigma may follow as the punishment, but the system relies on individual recognition of both the desired behavior and the possibility of being observed at any time. The individual conditions its own mind, equating the behavior with safety, and its denial with danger.

No institution escapes this requirement which, because all institutions are social, and society mandates norms to facilitate interaction, has followed all its derivations across time and culture as the sine qua non of institutions. Though commonly viewed as avante garde enclaves for the transmission of knowledge and challenging of social conventions, universities are no exception; they, too, employ a degree of panopticism. The watching begins with admission. Students relinquish their origins, habits, abilities, intellectual history, health, social security number, and pages worth of their intimate details in the hopes of meeting a university’s base standards. Those who make the cut are photographed, numbered, carded, and filed. Their housing, phones, computers, and schedules are run through the institution, which invests in an elaborate bureaucracy to advise and manage these resources. The computers and phones, run through campus networks, can always be tracked, as, on many campuses, can the carded entrance to dorms, meal plans, and certain facilities. Ubiquitous cameras guard against crime, also catching the movements of the passersby. Students also keep an eye on one another. Grades and finances are constantly available to advisors, teachers, and administrators as a matter of convenience and necessity. It is their job to ensure that the university produces the greatest number and highest quality of desirable minds possible.

Students, for their part, wish to do well in order to maintain their future opportunities. No one wants to waste the hefty tuition fees, and few care to brave the stigma of leaving or doing poorly. One whose behavior is perceived to be aberrant will be punished, possibly expelled. Most, fortunately, have been conditioned to proper behavior, language, and thought through prior schooling, and take the surveillance casually, almost with relief. After all, without these great surrounding walls, what would become of us? Some would shine brilliantly while others fell. Is it not better, then, to ensure mutual success by accepting the proffered protection?