For University of West Alabama President Richard Holland, it was all part of a pattern.
Some freshmen had worn caps and cut-off shirts to a performance by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Interviewers at on-campus career fairs commented on some students’ lack of business attire. And the cafeteria manager complained that athletes came wearing cleats, while other students wore shirts with slit sides.
“I don’t think they knew how to dress, really,” Holland said.
So over the summer, the public university instituted a dress code. Not any dress code -- “we’re not shooting for the khaki pants and the pullover polo shirt,” said Danny Buckalew, vice president for student affairs -- but a set of guidelines on what students can’t wear and in what situations they should dress more formally.
In contrast with other colleges that have instituted somewhat stricter measures recently, the policy was met with only minimal protest as students returned to campus this semester. At Paul Quinn College, in southern Dallas, the president introduced a required business-casual dress code from Monday through Thursday, harking back to the historically black institution’s once-common “expectations for dress.” More controversially, Illinois State University’s College of Business mandated business casual in two of its majors this semester, only to ease its enforcement after student protests.
“We’re not trying to be punitive at all, we’re trying to give them guidance,” Holland said. If students do violate the policy, they’ll more likely hear from a professor after class than be castigated in public. If problems continue, a student could be referred to a committee of both faculty and students. But so far, Holland said, “we have not had any issues.”
The policy (announced here in the student newspaper in August) was written to emphasize examples of "appropriate dress" in certain given situations. For example:
- In class, offices and the cafeteria, students must wear "neat and modest casual or dressy attire." This means no "caps, do-rags," bandannas and hoods -- but caps or other items worn for religious reasons are allowed.
- No netted shirts, tube tops, cut-off T-shirts, bare feet or cleats in class.
- No clothing bearing derogatory, offensive or lewd words or images.
- No "sagging pants" or "extreme low riders."
- No sleeveless undershirts outside of residence halls for men.
- Business attire for career fairs and interviews.
Recent press accounts have chronicled local attempts in Louisiana, Virginia and Connecticut to ban "sagging," or wearing pants low enough that underwear is visible. Even though such legislation is often proposed by African-American leaders, critics contend that there is a racial aspect to the indecency ordinances, which target a fashion style popularized by hip-hop artists and adopted by many urban minority youth.
At West Alabama, where white students only slightly outnumber black students, student leaders said race was not an issue with the policy. "The dress code is not targeting any particular group of students," said Mahalia A. Gray, the president of the Student Government Association, in an e-mail message.
"Some students have not been using their common sense, obviously, so [the administration] just felt like it was time to reinforce it," said Donmonique Gracie, vice president of the student government. She said there was an initial protest, but no official objections have been raised with the association.
Low-riding pants for women and sagging jeans for men weren't a big problem at the campus, she said, but more typical classroom attire might have included pajama pants or basketball shorts. Even now, she said, "the professors haven’t really been enforcing it."
"I’m happy that the dress code is in place because it [gives] our school a more professional look," Gracie said. "I just think all the students should accept it because it’s not like it’s really anything drastic to do."
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