Wednesday, September 19, 2007

ISU's Dress Code Gets Even Worse

A compromise has been reached in the dress code policy at Illinois State University’s marketing department, and to my jaw-dropping astonishment, the new policy actually manages to be even worse than the original policy. What makes it so bad? First of all, the punishment can be harsher. The new policy allows professors to reduce the overall grade of a student by 10% (or one letter grade) for violating the dress code. Fortunately, the old policy of banning students from class has been abandoned, but in the past, the policy required students to receive a dress code warning (it’s not clear if that will continue), and the punishment was limited to getting a zero for assignments due that day.

Another reason why the new policy is worse: in addition to the dress code policy, students can be punished for violating “other professional behaviors deemed appropriate for class by the professor.” This is an extraordinarily vague provision that is unrelated to the actual academic performance of the student. Among the standards that ISU’s College of Business adopted for students is that they must “Behave and speak professionally, respectfully, and courteously at all times.” By this rule, student grades could be punished for lacking courtesy according to the arbitrary definition of the professor.

The new policy explicitly favors business standards over academic standards, declaring that classes will “operate under standards of professional behavior that parallel those applied in the business world.” Considering that the suppression of constitutionally protected individual rights is common in the business world (right now I’m reading the excellent new book Speechless on this topic), this new policy raises even more concerns than the old one.

SGA president Dave Horstein declared, “I believe students will be very receptive to the change from a dress code to a suggested professional dress standard. The new set of standards preserves our Bill of Rights, while providing students the opportunity to choose what to wear to class.” That is completely false. Grading students based on their attire is plainly a dress code. The notion that students are free to choose how to dress is only true if they’re willing to sacrifice a full grade. That’s like saying that if a professor lowers the grade of a student with an opposing viewpoint, it’s acceptable because students can freely choose to have the lower grade. Being punished in grading for one’s attire while attending a class is not acceptable in academia, nor should vague standards about “professional standards” be used to punish students.

After speaking on the panel about the dress code last week at ISU, I spoke with a student in the department who believes that the dress code is illegal. I agree, and I hope that some lawyers will step forward to help defend the principles of individual student rights and grading based on academic criteria.

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