Sunday, September 09, 2007

Dress Codes for Success

(below is my essay published in the Indy at Illinois State University about the dress code there)


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 dress codes story has been featured on Chicago TV news and public radio; United Press International; Business Week; InsideHigherEd.com; the US News & World Report blog; and even DailyIndia.com. It’s an important story because it reflects the chasm between a corporate world that suppresses freedom and an academic world that defends liberty.

The Student Government Association’s constitution includes a student bill of rights that includes “The right to be free from any mandatory dress code.” Obviously, ISU administrators never bothered to look at the Student Bill of Rights, since they don’t believe students have any rights, except of course the right to pay tuition and do what they’re told. It is puzzling why SGA seems reluctant to defend the rights it has proclaimed. Should freedom of speech at ISU be revoked if a department decrees it, or if a majority of students agree?

It apparently never occurred to the faculty to consider the idea that students might have rights. Tim Longfellow, the chair of the department of marketing at ISU, noted, We did not ask students if they wanted the standards; nor did they request them.” These business faculty never consulted their customers before forcing them to wear clothes that most of them don’t want to wear.

The restrictions on faculty may be worse. Longfellow noted, “The departmental faculty have deemed adherence to the Standards of Professional Behavior and Ethical Conduct to be an important performance indicator, much like teaching, research, and service.” In fact, according to Longfellow, “A faculty member in the Department of Marketing who did not adhere to the business casual dress policy would not be eligible for a raise.” Unfortunately for the marketing department, ISU’s rules explicitly prohibit this, since faculty must be evaluated according to the quality of their research, teaching, and service. No department is allowed to invent a fourth category of “standards” and punish faculty for how they dress.

Longfellow declared about the professional standards for faculty that we must all buy into it. Will faculty who disagree with this dress code being imposed on students get hired by a department devoted to unanimity?

The legal question of this dress code is also questionable at a public university. 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?

Training for Corporate America

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.
A dress code is truly unnecessary to educate students. 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. In seeking to suppress sneakers and shorts, these business faculty at Illinois State University are violating the professional standards of academia.

Offensive Dressing

It seems that to celebrate the 150th anniversary of ISU this year, the marketing department decided to honor the distant past by taking us back to it, reviving that golden age when students dressed up for class and the neatness of their appearance matched their happy obedience to authority. The 1960s changed those days on campuses, including ISU. But a new age of corporate conformity is upon us, and the College of Business seems prepared to march students to a brave new world, like the Deltas in Aldous Huxley’s novel, all dressed in khaki.

Now, to the specifics of the dress code. The biggest concern is the punishment. After one warning, Failure to meet these standards will lead to the following: the student being asked to leave the classroom and the student receiving a zero (0) on any class work collected that day. For example, could a student turning in a paper worth 20% of his grade receive a 0 if he shows up to class in wrinkled pants? Apparently so, since Clothing should be pressed and never wrinkled is one of the rules. The vague language is also alarming, such as a ban on “Any clothing that has words, terms, or pictures that may be offensive...”

Here's the funniest line in the policy: "people are easily offended or distracted by words." Of course, some words, namely corporate words, are acceptable: "Sports team, university, and fashion brand names on clothing are generally acceptable." That means ISU is engaging in viewpoint discrimination, prohibiting offensive words only.
And if you thought we were decades beyond the idea of teachers pulling out rulers to measure the length of women's dresses, think again: Dress and skirt length should be no shorter than four inches above the knee..." Longfellow noted, “I do not ever seeing us getting a ruler out to measure skirt length.” Perhaps mathematical precision is no longer important in business, but where I come from, four inches is something you measure with a ruler, unless you like getting measurements wrong. Of course, if the ISU dress code were changed to what it should be–a series of suggestions to assist students, with helpful advice from faculty–then there would be no need for rulers. But if there is a punishing rule, then there must be a ruler, and absurd arguments over the nuances of these rules (is that four inches from the top of the knee or the bottom of the knee? If “solid colors work better than bright patterns,” as the rules state, are plaids banned?)
The marketing department claims that an appeals procedure will be added to protect students. But an appeal only works if the rules are clear and just. And the dress code isn’t.

Obedient Dressing

From any objective point of view, the whole obsession with businesswear is fundamentally irrational. Exactly why does a tie make you a better businessman? How can khakis improve your business acumen? Why should your shoes affect your ability to make money? Why would any company hire the best dressed applicant rather than the best qualified one?

The key reason is that skill and talent is far less important in corporate America than obedience. And the business dress code is a test of obedience. If you display individuality in your dress, it’s a symbol of your willingness to defy your superiors. Corporate dress is, in fact, a form of hazing that never ends. Forcing people to do something they dislike and makes them uncomfortable (say, wearing ties or heels) is the standard definition of hazing. And hazing is a powerful way to built loyalty and obedience.

The sales and marketing programs are deeply entwined with irrational impulses, so it’s not surprisingly to find them leading the crusade for dress codes at ISU. Marketing, after all, is the science of convincing consumers to buy things they don’t need and didn’t know they wanted. And while it might seem odd for the business education program to jump on this khaki parade, in fact dress codes have had no bigger fan than K-12 schools, where they are thought to solve almost every educational problem, from gangs to discipline to the structured learning of standardized testing. In this age of “No Child Left Behind,” we must remember that it was preceded by “No Uniform Left Behind,” when political hacks like Bill Clinton dreamed that forcing young students to dress alike in white shirts would be an easy substitute for educational reform. Just as endless multiple-choice tests are meant to crush educational creativity from our schools, uniforms are meant to destroy individual creativity of students.

Of course, the marketing faculty have claimed that they are simply “instructing” students on what kind of dress they will need in their future work in the business world. This argument, of course, doesn’t make any sense because the classroom is not a human resources department. Students already know that they will have to dress in a goofy manner in order to obtain a job; they don’t need a code in college in order to learn how to dress. Dress codes are not so intellectually complicated as to require college-level learning or constant practice throughout four years of higher education. After all, any idiot can wear brown pants, and many do.

I can only lament the faculty who imagine that instructing students in dressing is their job. So far, only ISU’s business teachers appear to be the only ones in the country willing to embarrass themselves by publicly embracing a dress code. But even more alarming is the far more common belief that the sole purpose of business classes is to serve the status quo of corporate America and inculcate students in job training.

The true purpose of a business school is to educate students about the topic of business, not to train them to embrace the business world without questions. Why couldn’t a student take business classes to learn about the evils of the corporate world? Why can’t a business student become an entrepreneur rather than a corporate peon? Why shouldn’t a business school teach students to question assumptions rather than to obey the status quo, in dressing or thinking?

Ironically, ISU’s business professor are trying to impose a dress code at precisely the moment when dress codes are going out of fashion. At a major Manhattan technology conference last fall, what were all the rich executives wearing? According to the New York Times, “Mark Zuckerberg, the 22-year-old chief executive of the social networking site Facebook, wearing Adidas flip-flops — sans socks — with a blazer and jeans.” Yes, a guy trying to impress people and sell his company for $1 billion was wearing jeans and flip-flops, which would get him banned from marketing classes at ISU. There are a billion reasons to think Zuckerberg knows a whole lot more about marketing than ISU marketing professors, and he seems to think that dress codes are not the key thing students need to learn. And what’s the dress code at Google? “You must wear clothes.” What Facebook and Google know is that creativity is a lot more important to success than a business casual wardrobe.

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. If they don’t, then marketing and business education students should stand up for their rights.

The freedom to dress may seem trivial to many people, especially because it is a right violated so often in the corporate world. But freedom of expression is equally suppressed in the corporate world, and we do not imagine that free speech should therefore be eliminated on college campuses. First they take away your jeans and sneakers, next it’s your political buttons, and then your right to dissent is gone.

1 comment:

mrsrat said...

I attended a seminar on sexual harassment today and one of the professros at the college where I work asked what she could do about a female student who comes to class half naked every day. Her boobs, thong and butt crack hang out and the boys ogle her. It makes the professor very uncomfortable. The only answer I can see is having a dress code that labels this kind of attire inappropriate.