Dress Codes for College Students
People who just don’t seem to understand what higher education is all about have tried to bring all kinds of bad ideas from K-12 to colleges in recent years: standardized testing, repression of the student press, bans on controversy. But now the department of marketing and business teacher education at Illinois State University has brought us a truly stupid idea: the dress code.
Yes, students in these classes will be forced to wear business casual clothes, and all sneakers, flip-flops, baseball caps, shorts, T-shirts, and pajama bottoms will be banned.
Dress codes impose a financial burden on poorer students. Buying business casual clothing may force already impoverished students to go into debt.
But the worst part of dress codes is that they send a message of conformity and repression (that’s why corporations and conservative religious colleges like them). The suppression of individual freedom is completely at odds with the nature of the university. Professors can’t impose their personal dress preferences on students. It’s even worse when an entire department seeks to impose a dress code. And it’s probably illegal.
The Supreme Court has never dealt with a dress code case directly. Federal appeals courts have upheld dress codes at public schools in Texas and Louisiana, but these were specifically authorized by state law for minors. Dress codes in K-12 public schools are only legal if a school has a direct interest in maintaining an effective educational environment. It’s doubtful that a dress code at a public college could pass constitutional scrutiny. Exactly why can’t college students learn in sneakers? But there’s never been a case involving a dress code at a public university, precisely because so few faculty would normally consider limiting student freedom in this way.
After all, wearing an anti-war button is not considered “professional” dress in the corporate environment. Does that mean that anyone who wears a political message will be banned from these business courses?
Marketing professor Linda Showers proclaimed, "We know how important it is for students to have an extra edge. They will establish these habits out the door.” Actually, dressing up is probably the least important lesson for students to learn. Do you really need a college degree to learn how to wear khakis? What students need to learn is how to think creatively, communicate effectively, and understand past and present ideas about their field. Learning how to follow a dress code is not the goal of a college education.
According to another professor, this dress code is simply an extension of one already imposed on some students in the sales program: "For a few years the sales faculty has been doing this and students adjusted to it and got positive feedback.” Students “adjusted” to it by obedience at the threat of being failed and expelled, of course.
The business faculty should reconsider their ill-advised rules. And if they don’t, the faculty senate should step in to declare that no dress code can be imposed on students.
Of course, professors and departments are perfectly free to urge a particular style of dress for students, and to educate students about what they think is proper fashion. They can hassle and deride students who don’t conform. But they can’t throw students out of a class for wearing sneakers. Doing so imposes a harsh penalty; a student who is not allowed to attend class is at a severe disadvantage, and is being deprived of the education tuition money is supposed to provide.
This stifling of individual liberty and personal expression is precisely the opposite of what students need to learn in order to become good marketers and good teachers. Pointless obedience shouldn’t be considered a virtue, especially not in academia. College students aren’t being trained to become docile little corporate peons (or at least they shouldn’t be). The purpose of a college education is to educate students about an intellectual field of knowledge, not to force them to dress (or think) in a certain way.
According to the College of Business standards, “The administration, faculty, staff, and students of the College of Business at Illinois State University are committed to the principles of professional behavior and integrity. As a community of scholars and business professionals, we strive to embody the characteristics of responsibility, honesty, respect, fairness, and trust in our professional and personal lives.” But the professional standards of higher education are very different from the professional standards of corporate America, where there is no freedom and individual liberty. Forcing students to wear certain fashions is the ultimate form of disrespect. Ironically, in seeking to suppress sneakers and shorts, these business faculty at Illinois State University are violating the professional standards of academia.