Since he was named as president of Morehouse College in 2007, Robert M. Franklin has stressed the importance of defining education broadly, well beyond courses. He has been talking about the social and ethical obligations of those who are studying at the elite historically black college. Of late he has been calling for students to have "five wells" -- to be "well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced.”
Last week, the idea of being "well dressed" became much more specific, with the start of an "appropriate attire policy," under which Morehouse is joining a small group of colleges that have in recent years adopted dress codes. Morehouse's policy is generally being well received by students -- and college officials stress that 90-plus percent of students are already in compliance. But the policy is getting some criticism from gay students over the idea of regulating dress, and specifically for banning the wearing of women's attire.
Here are some of the policy's features:
- Caps, do-rags and hoods are banned in classrooms, the cafeteria and other indoor venues. Do-rags may not be worn outside of the residence halls.
- Sunglasses may not be worn in class or at formal programs.
- Jeans may not be worn at major programs such as convocation, commencement or Founder's Day.
- Clothing with "derogatory, offensive and/or lewd messages either in words or pictures" may not be worn.
- "Sagging," defined as "the wearing of one’s pants or shorts low enough to reveal undergarments or secondary layers of clothing," is banned.
- Pajamas are banned in public areas.
- Wearing of "clothing associated with women’s garb (for example, dresses, tunics, purses, handbags, pumps, wigs, make-up, etc.)" is banned. (Morehouse educates only male students.)
William Bynum, vice president for student services at Morehouse, said that the clothing rules are part of a broader agenda to develop students' minds and "social consciences." He said that Franklin, the president, has pushed President Obama's idea that there should be "no excuses" for black men in an era when one of their own has been elected president of the United States.
Bynum said that while the clothing rules are capturing attention, it is important to view those rules as part of a broad set of values being promoted. For instance, on Saturday, 200 students spent the morning going door-to-door in area neighborhoods, briefing residents on tutoring and mentoring programs run by students, and providing information about nutrition, energy efficiency and job training.
Generally, he said, students have responded well to the clothing rules. And while there are plenty of examples of student attire in the past that would have violated the rules, most students won't have to change the way they dress. An unscientific review of Morehouse students' Facebook pages finds many posing in ties, not the drinking shots that are common at some institutions.
Cameron Thomas-Shah, co-chief of staff of the Student Government Association, said that he backs the new policy, and sees it as consistent with the college's values. "It's about the ideals of the school. If you come to Morehouse college, and want to become a Morehouse man, you should know these things. You should know you don't wear do-rags. You should know that you don't wear caps inside. You shouldn't deviate from the norms of what a man wears."
Many of the styles banned at Morehouse are popular at other colleges, and Thomas-Shah said that doesn't create any doubts in his mind about Morehouse's approach. "On other college campuses, this is common. Other campuses are common, but Morehouse isn't common. It's an institution founded on the principles of producing black male leaders. We have a legacy to protect."
The only vocal opposition to the new rules has come from some gay students on campus. Kevin Webb, co-president of Safe Space @ Morehouse, a gay-straight student alliance, said that under Franklin's leadership, the college has been more committed to equity for gay students than ever before, and that "as an openly gay student, I feel privileged to have matriculated now."
Webb said that gay students are divided about the dress code. But although he will not have to change his style, he said he was bothered by the new rules.
For many gay students, fashion is an important part of self-definition, he said. "Once you try to stop people's expression, everything that is unique about people is going to start to crumble, and you will produce robots, and we wouldn't want that, would we?"
A few gay Morehouse students do dress in women's clothing sometimes, and Webb said that should be allowed. While all Morehouse students are covered by the new clothing policy, Webb said he was bothered that a specific rule singled out a style popular only with some gay students. "I think this borders on discrimination," he said. "While someone can say that it applies the heteronormativity of other students in terms of do-rags and sagging of pants, I can also say that there are gay people who sag their pants and wear their do-rags, but you don't find people here who identify themselves as straight walking around in feminine garb."
If male students wear feminine clothing, he asked, "what impact does it have on how intelligent they are, their grade point average and how much community service they do?"
He also questioned the idea that someone who wears more formal clothing is necessarily a better person. "We are focusing too much on the exterior," he said. "If you put a clown in a suit, he's still a clown."
Bynum, the Morehouse vice president, said that he met with Safe Space before the policy went into effect, and he noted that many of the students there supported the change. He said that the policy isn't about gay students, but about standards for all students. "Morehouse is completely supportive of our gay students. This isn't about them, but about all students."
Two presidents of other institutions that have instituted dress codes in recent years say that they are glad they did so. (Both are coeducational and didn't ban women's clothing, but otherwise have policies similar to the one instituted at Morehouse.)
Richard Holland, president of the University of West Alabama, instituted the rules there in 2007, after he noticed some freshmen wearing caps and cut-off shorts to a performance by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He said he's pleased with the results, but added that regular attention is needed. "We have noticed that each fall semester we must remind the university community of the dress code," he said. "This is especially true with beginning freshmen, new transfer students and new faculty and staff."
He said that officials work with a variety of student groups to help in the "selling of the code" to other students.
Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, which also adopted clothing rules in 2007, said that rules on clothing "changed the tenor of the campus." He noted that the college started stocking a closet with acceptable clothing, so that any students who need to borrow items may do so.
As president of another historically black college, Sorrell said he's been watching the discussions at Morehouse with interest and said he was "thrilled" to see that college adopt the rules. "I can only hope that more schools recognize the need for leadership in this area," he said.