The College of Business at Illinois State University is taking the imperative to "dress for success" literally. Starting this fall, students majoring in marketing or business teacher education will have to watch what they wear, donning business casual attire in class -- or risk getting kicked out for the day.
Business schools offer plenty of reasons to look professional but tend to stop short of requiring a dress code, opting instead to encourage students to look sharp for interviews and meetings with recruiters. While medical schools routinely mandate personal hygiene and clothing guidelines (like these) for students in clinical facilities, and while a number of private religious institutions mandate dress standards, the step is unusual in a classroom setting at a business school.
But college officials have implemented the move, they say, with significant input from the students themselves and a good look at companies' codes of conduct. The dress code is part of a larger set of standards designed to encourage professionalism and intended to prepare students for the "real world" of business after graduation.
"I think you come in there, you say gosh, it becomes this kind of almost ... mental shift," said Tim Longfellow, the chairman of the Department of Marketing at Illinois State, which for the time being will be alone in mandating a dress code within the business college. The change was rolled out with a grace period as classes started this week, but beginning next Monday the rules will be in full force -- for both students and teachers. The one exception so far is "Introduction to Marketing Management," because non-majors can take the class.
Business casual for men generally means khakis or cotton pants with a collared button-down shirt or polo; no tie is necessary. For women, cotton pants or skirts are allowed with sweaters, polo shirts and blouses, but the guidelines (reprinted here within a blog post) add more than a few caveats:
- For women, "Solid colors work better than bright patterns."
- Students will also need to keep up on their dry cleaning (or ironing): "Clothing should be pressed and never wrinkled. Torn, dirty or frayed clothing is unacceptable. All seams must be finished."
- The types of pants acceptable for men is also clearly delineated: "Slacks that are similar to Dockers and other makers of cotton or synthetic material pants, wool pants, flannel pants, and nice looking dress synthetic pants are acceptable."
- There is a note of caution on skirts: "Dress and skirt length should be no shorter than four inches above the knee, or a length at which you can sit comfortably in public. Short, tight skirts that ride halfway up the thigh are inappropriate for the classroom." Longfellow responded to criticisms in an e-mail posted at the College Freedom blog: "I do not ever [see] us getting a ruler out to measure skirt length."
- "Use common sense when wearing clothing that has words on it; people are easily offended or distracted by words," the guidelines note, but it's unclear how a student can wear a shirt that is both collared and bearing offensive language. However, "[c]lothing that has the Illinois State University logo is encouraged. Sports team, university, and fashion brand names on clothing are generally acceptable."
- If your body is covered in piercings and your hair is spiked and dyed purple, business school may not be the place for you: "Do be aware that as you move into the corporate world, visible body piercing other than pierced ears and visible tattoos may not be considered appropriate by some of the firms you want to work for."
- "Hats are not appropriate in the classroom," but "[h]ead covers that are required for religious purposes or to honor cultural tradition are allowed."
Administrators' and faculty members' arguments for the dress code are forceful. "They’re in a preprofessional environment; it’s not like a light switch gets flipped and you go from being students to a competent professional," said Amy Humphreys, assistant to the college dean for constituent relations. "You can already just feel the difference [in attitude] between the kids who just come shuffling in with iPods and flip-flops, and then students who come in dressed for success."
Students, who found out about the changes in a letter over the summer, are somewhat split on the issue. Chrystal Caban, a senior who is president of the college's American Marketing Association chapter, said she normally has worn sweatpants and a T-shirt to class, "and I've always considered myself a good student." She conceded that she doesn't feel strongly either way and can see the merits of both sides.
But Rob Duerr, a junior who is president of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization (CEO), implied that students who have trouble with the policy are acting out of laziness. He said there was also an added benefit for outside visitors to the college, such as recruiters, who "come and they see everyone dressed up and they get a better impression of what’s going on."
The dress code grew from a larger effort to adopt wide-ranging standards of professional behavior and ethical conduct, which urge students (and professors) to "[d]ress appropriately, avoiding clothing that is revealing, provocative, or includes offensive language or visuals." Norris Porter, assistant to the dean for student services, said the standards came about after the major business scandals earlier this decade and the financial decline in the wake of September 11. Colleges felt pressure from corporations, he said, which wanted to know how students were being prepared for the moral responsibilities awaiting them after graduation.
"In light of that, the college took the perspective that most corporations have these standards or codes of conduct or 'how we do business' statements, and we decided we’d do our own," Porter said.
Before being taken department-wide, the dress code was first required in individual marketing classes starting in 2003. Last fall, all courses in the professional sales sequence followed suit (as some other similar tracks have done within other schools, Longfellow said). "Inputs from students and faculty alike have been extremely positive," the guidelines state. "All have indicated that the professionalism exhibited in the class led to a better learning environment, students being better prepared for class, and students being more respectful of one another."
Once the grace period this week is over, professors can theoretically ask students they consider to be in violation of the guidelines to leave the room, meaning they could lose credit for any work that day. Longfellow emphasized that there would be an appeals process and that students can speak with their professors if there is a misunderstanding, but said the department was still deciding whether a repeat offender could eventually be removed from his or her major. Caban suggested that some professors might enforce the policy more leniently than others, a possibility that might cause some students to choose their classes more strategically.
Other criticisms came from online, where the College Freedom blog suggested that the policy would disproportionately affect poorer students: "Buying business casual clothing may force already impoverished students to go into debt." Longfellow said he hasn't heard any complaints yet. "The thing is, you can look very nicely in business casual and not really spend a lot of money either," he said -- less than what it costs to buy designer jeans, he added.
Illinois State's status as a public university presents another potential complication, although Longfellow said the policy passed muster with the legal team. Since students apply specifically to the program within the university, there wasn't an issue of stifling expression, he said.