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    Insights on the college completion agenda, higher education policy, and institutional performance, from James T. Minor of the Southern Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Censoring Self-Expression on College Campuses
September 13, 2012 - 9:21pm

By guest blogger Samaad Wes Keys, SEF Program Assistant and doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education

Over the past couple of years the censoring of self-expression has been a hot topic on many campuses. Recently the media washed ashore a new wave of controversy concerning Hampton University’s business school policy that restricts MBA students from wearing their hair in locs (or what is more commonly referred to as “Dread-locs”). This comes on the heels of the brouhaha that developed following the implementation of a written dress code policy at Morehouse College.

In a recent discussion with a close friend and mentor this topic came up.  The conversation began with us attempting to gauge the adverse implications these policies have on institutions.  I am not ashamed to admit my initial argument: “These are private institutions, if they would like to enforce a dress code or esthetic guidelines they can. If a student does not want to adhere to these guidelines they don’t have to attend.”

His response:

“Innovation and conformity don’t mix. This might be especially true in business. If Harvard censored Mark Zuckerberg and told him he couldn’t wear a hoodie, t-shirt or Birkenstock sandals to class they would not be able to claim his genius. Students should make their own choices regarding their appearance; let them face the social repercussions of their actions. The university’s job is to make them aware of the context and industry standards.”

As I sat in dismay (I couldn’t believe he brought Mark Z. into this), trying to conjure up a good response that would place me in the lead of this intellectual debate, I realized he was right. But, I also acknowledged the fact that there are not enough Mark Zuckerberg’s of color and that this issues was somehow tied to race. The difference between Mark Zuckerberg and modern-day students of color are persistent societal biases and judgments they face based on gender, race, class, and in some cases the institution they attend.

It wasn’t too long ago that many individuals were denied access to quality education and well-paying jobs because of the color of their skin. As a result, many people of color attempted to “normalize” themselves socially and professionally by taking on the look of the majority.  Growing up, I was always told that I had to work twice as hard as White students who attended better-resourced schools in the suburbs because I was an African American male from the “projects” of Paterson, NJ. This was continuously engrained in me while a student at Morehouse College. Although the name of the institution may get someone’s attention, we were taught that it was up to us to capitalize on this attention by virtue of being well-read, well spoken, well-traveled, well-balanced and well-dressed. This was prior to a written dress code.

For decades institutions have trained students how to participate in society beyond having book knowledge. This portion of the development process extended beyond the doors of the classroom, but provided education that enhanced the social character and civic participation of students in society. How, you may ask? The answer is pretty simple; by imbuing social values like removing ones cap when entering a building or by requiring female students to wear skirts.  Today these social customs may seem outdated (if not offensive to some) and are no longer formally taught or required. Today wearing pajamas to class, cross-dressing, or sporting locs to a business seminar represents our current policy dilemma.  The history of higher education reveals two lessons:

1) Cultural fads that show up on campus are a reflection of larger society and will continue to change over time in expression and acceptability. There is no need to legislate something that evolves so organically.

2) The value of higher education is teaching and learning in a context that freely invites diverse ideas, perspectives, and approaches.  This is the only way we can advance what we already know. Policies that unnecessarily restrict student expression in educative environments likely do more harm than good.  And, we have no evidence that associates genius with how one looks.

The academy has always been an environment that has promoted creativity, diversity and intellectual stimulation not a cult-like atmosphere where each student must drink the conformity Kool-Aid spiked with the conservative ideologies of the past.

 There is educational value in informing students about what society or a particular industry deems appropriate. However, institutions must do this with appropriate balance. There is a clear distinction between informing students and implementing regulations that are restrictive, stifling and obstructs self-expression.

Many parents believe that after you provide a child with good information and context you can only hope they make appropriate decisions as adults. The same should apply when considering policies that censor young adults on college campuses. I suggest that college and university administrators adopt a similar philosophy and focus on teaching content knowledge within a social or professional context versus regulating appearance. 

The only thing that results from adopting flammable policies aimed at regulating appearance is that universities run the risk of deterring a modern-day (and maybe socially awkward) genius from attending their institution. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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