Docking a Grade for Skirting the Rules?

Responding to student pressure, the College of Business at Illinois State keeps its business-casual requirement but lessens consequences for violations.
September 19, 2007

Students majoring in marketing or business teacher education were in for a shock when Illinois State University informed them over the summer of a new mandatory, business casual dress code. The uproar -- ranging from complaints about dry cleaning costs to charges of overbearing paternalism -- began almost immediately, while administrators defended the policy as an introduction to business norms and an injection of discipline that would carry over into students' study habits.

Now, weeks later, the chair of the College of Business's marketing department is announcing a "revised" policy that upholds the dress code but potentially minimizes its impact on students who can't -- or won't -- abide by the rules.

While the original policy offered guidelines ranging from color choices ("solid" for women) to upkeep ("pressed and never wrinkled") to skirt length ("no shorter than four inches above the knee"), the revision -- which goes into effect as soon as professors can announce it to their students -- states simply that affected classes "will operate under standards of professional behavior that parallel those applied in the business world," including "being dressed in appropriate business casual attire for class meetings, unless business professional attire is required."

The main difference is an additional emphasis on "other professional behaviors deemed appropriate for class by the professor," such as arriving on time and not interrupting the lecture (although those guidelines are already covered under the college's Standards of Professional Behavior and Ethical Conduct). Under the previous policy, students who failed to dress business casual could be thrown out of class -- meaning a potential loss of credit for assignments completed that day. Now, they could theoretically arrive in jeans without fear of getting kicked out, but up to 10 percent of their final grades could be docked instead.

David Horstein, the student body president, said the idea is that 10 percent of an overall course grade can go toward "professionalism," including a student's dress appearance and also other factors of professionalism, with the "hope that a professor cannot abuse" the dress requirement.

"The way that I hope this works," Horstein said, is that it "gives the professors a lot of discretion with policies like that." (Tim Longfellow, the chairman, said he understood the policy as meaning that "we’ll look across the board" in evaluating professionalism.)

Horstein began receiving complaints from students soon after the policy was announced two weeks prior to the start of classes this semester. "At first, I was afraid to even take on the issue," he said, worrying that administrators would "make us look like a lazy student body" for protesting the dress code. Then he learned that the policy apparently ran afoul of the university's Student Bill of Rights, which has an explicit prohibition against mandatory dress codes.

It was a while before he and other student leaders were able to sit down with Longfellow and other officials: "Basically the conversations ... were happening through the media," he said.

Longfellow praised the student leaders in a press release, saying, "I truly believe that shared governance, a strong and valued tradition on this campus, has prevailed. The Department of Marketing is pleased and believes that the compromised wording for the business casual dress standard allows the department to accomplish its initial purpose for establishing the dress standard, to provide an opportunity to enhance the overall professionalism of our students and to hopefully provide them with an additional advantage as they begin their career search."

In an interview, Longfellow said he has not received any direct complaints about the policy to date, and that concerns about accumulating appropriate attire to attend class were mostly exaggerated at a business school where most students have recently completed or will soon complete internships.

Referring to the original policy, he said: "I think overall, as I talk with the faculty, with the students, I think it’s been very well received there."


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