Motivations for Surveillance
In thinking about surveillance, it is important to consider not only the experiences of those who are being observed but also the motivations of the observers. Since surveillance requires a serious commitment of time and resources and carries a very real possibility of public backlash, the reasons that motivate institutions to invest their effort into surveillance must outweigh the associated costs and risks. This section uses archival documents to examine the factors that motivated the adminstration of the University of Texas at Austin to collect information on students, professors, and other suspected "political radicals" on campus during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Among the many conflicts that roiled the American society in the 1960s, the struggle for control over universities was particularly dramatic. As students challenged traditional systems of governance and demanded a greater role in decision-making on curriculum and other important matters, administrators often moved to suppress such challenges to their authority. Surveillance became an important instrument in this struggle for power, allowing administrators to anticipate and respond to student protests.
Though the student activism of the 1960s eventually lost its momentum, issues of agency and university governance are re-surfacing today, as new generations of activists demand greater representation and power on college campuses. Surveillance also remains a politically charged and controversial issue in today's America, making these documents of the American university's troubled past particularly relevant.
In addition to internal strife, university administrators had to contend with many external influences that pushed them to collect information on students and faculty. These influences included nation-wide political activism (particularly attempts on the part of the SDS to organize a strong socialist movement that would unite university students across the United States) and fears of non-student activists contributing to rising tensions on campus. From the administration's standpoint, monitoring such activism was a way to keep the University and its student population insulated from political radicalism and the public backlash that it tended to produce.
Outside pressures on university administrators were not limited to national politics and non-student activism. Another important factor was the pressure from the FBI to observe and report on any individuals and groups the federal government considered suspect. American universities also faced backlash from individual citizens and conservative political groups, who set out to monitor college campuses for signs of left-leaning politics and make sure that administrators denied official recognition to groups like the SDS. In this context, surveillance was a way for the university to respond to outside demands for accountability.