Engage & Learn

The University as Heterotopia

By Elizabeth Rice


At the start of his script, playwright Christopher Shinn unobtrusively sets his story with two simple lines:


 The time is now.

The place is on and nearby the campus of a large state university in the Northeast.


Although he identifies the setting as in the “Northeast”, the story, the actions of the play can easily be transplanted to any state university in the U.S., perhaps even regardless of size. As an alumnus of a large state university, albeit in the Midwest, the campus imagery Teddy Ferrara conjures is not unfamiliar. I can easily transpose Teddy’s Manhunt chat into my own dorm room, Gabe, Tim, and Jenny’s pre-dance party bar to any number of low-key dives near my campus’s quad, the Queer Students Group meeting into any classroom. While schools differ across the country and the globe in academic strengths, there tends to be a universality in the social environment of college campuses, especially state universities with a quintessential “college town”. It is because of this universality, and coinciding timelessness, that universities, specifically state universities, can be considered what philosopher Michel Foucault calls a heterotopia, a real place that exist spatially outside of the time and juxtaposes its existence with its surrounding space.

Michel Foucault, a French writer and philosopher, often discussed in college level humanities courses, is noted  for his works Madness and Civilization, The Order of Things, The History of Sexuality, among others,. Often described as a structuralist or post-structuralist, much of Foucault’s work grew out of his interest in Nietzsche and the history of medicine. His discussion of heterotopias is not found in the body of any of his published materials, but rather in the preface of The Order of Things, in a 1966 radio broadcast, and most notably in a 1967 lecture, where he lays out the six principles that define heterotopias. Each, of which, can clearly define a university.

Foellinger Hall and the Quad at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Photo courtesy of Herbert J. Brant

First, every culture has heterotopias; however there is not a universal form to heterotopias. Most fall within two main categories: crisis heterotopias and heterotopias of deviation. Crisis heterotopias are spaces designated specifically for individuals who are in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of “crisis.” This can include youth, the elderly, pregnant women, etc.  In contrast, heterotopias of deviation are spaces designated for individuals whose behavior is deviant in relations to the required mean or norm”. This may include prisons, psychiatric hospitals and rest homes.

Of these two categories, a university would fall under the first, as a crisis heterotopia. One can look at university as a midpoint between the end of formal, state sanctioned education and a person’s entrance into the structureless “real world”. Though similarly regimented as a K-12 education, there are more outlets of choice and freedom in college, much like the opportunities afforded to individual post-academia. However, there are clear penalties for not following the proposed collegiate routine (i.e. going to class, doing the work, etc.) This is not always the norm after leaving an academic setting.

Second, societies can make the specific function of a heterotopia change overtime. It, in turn, can function within the society as one or another.

For example, at one point in time, some women treated universities much like a finishing school. It was a holding place between high school and marriage. Co-ed campuses afforded the opportunity to develop social skills, find a mate of considerable pedigree, and learn topics that would be useful in future social situations.

A university experience still remains as a stepping stone between high school and adulthood, however the value of the product obtained there has changed. Originally a space for men interested in continuing their education, it grew to become a prestigious establishment for modern thought sought out by governments to help better rule. Looking at more recent times, a bachelor’s degree used to mean guaranteed entrance into a career upon graduation. Today, tens of thousands of students graduate every year with bachelor’s degree, in search of employment and often taking positions not in their field of study.

Third, a heterotopia juxtaposes in a physical place several spaces that in themselves are incomplete.

A university setting brings together a condensed version of the real world. The relationships between each aspect are not so delineated but meld into one another. The perceived primary focus of university is Education. Thus, an emphasis is put on one’s studies and academia. However, social interaction is equally important. This can exist in a variety of ways. Through extracurriculars, ie.clubs, sports, greek life, work, etc. The university becomes a microcosm of one’s adult life and interactions. They exist on top of one another and interweave through a student’s day to day activities.

Fourth, heterotopias exist outside of conventional time. Rather, they accumulate time. Foucault gives examples of museums and libraries as places where time “never stops building up”. They continually add to their collection while temporally moving forward, however, never really changing in idea. This line of thought can be applied to the university setting as well.

Bishop House at Rutgers University. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Lacwal12

Universities consistently exist as establishments for the pursuit of higher education. They accrue new alumni year after year. While the make-up of a school can change, i.e. population, academic, studies, typography, the general experience of the attending students does not. Students go to class, take tests, write papers, and interact socially and academically with peers and professors, then graduate, usually within a four year time span. Every year, a new set of students begin this process. The student still move forward but the process stays the same within the one place.

Fifth, heterotopic sites are both opened and closed. They seem freely accessible to the public, however entry into them is either compulsory or requires rites and permission.

Today, most campuses are easily accessible to the public, situated within or near a local community which its citizens can interact or use the school’s facilities. However, without applying to the school and receiving and acceptance letter, on is no part of the university itself. They may physically enter the buildings, sit in on class, however without passing the application process, are not part of the university population.

Finally, a heterotopia functions in relation to the spaces around, creating either an illusion that exposes the real space (i.e. the world within a mirror) or else a real space perfected in comparison to the “real world”.

Whether city or college town, universities exist with a pre-established community. However, campus life is a lot more structured, which can be interpreted as perfected, than the natural rhythm of the rest of the outside world.

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Bayard Rustin speaking to a crowd in 1965. Photo by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (via Wikimedia Commons)
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