Return of the Dress Code

Marketing students at Illinois State University's College of Business face a choicebusiness casual attire for class or a zero for the day

Trips to the dry cleaner and mini shopping sprees at stores like Brooks Brothers are just some of the tasks awaiting undergraduate marketing students at Illinois State University's College of Business this school year. Starting Aug. 27, all students taking classes in the marketing department are required to adhere to a strict business casual code, one that requires them to come to class in items such as pressed polo shirts, pants with finished seams, and dress heels. Students tested out the policy during a grace period last week.

The move is part of a broader effort by the College of Business—which has previously had a dress code for some specialized courses and sequences—to institute new professional conduct code standards for students. Faculty want students to be prepared to meet at any time with recruiters or donors who may visit the school: Looking professional is a key part of that strategy, they said. "We believe wearing business casual kind of gives our students a leg up," said Timothy Longfellow, chairman of the College of Business' marketing department. "They now have two years to really learn what business causal is, rather than perhaps making mistakes when they start their jobs."

Illinois is apparently the only public undergraduate business school in the country to implement a dress code for students, says Brenda Lovell, vice-president and chief education officer for the Assn. to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The code, which also applies to business education students, has made waves in the blogosphere, the school's student newspaper, and the wider academic community since news of the requirement broke last week. "I've got to hand it to them—if it was part of a public relations campaign, they've done an excellent job," Lovell says. "They've gotten far more press than they could have for doing anything much less interesting."

Following Suit

Although the dress code is currently limited to the school's marketing department, others at the school and in the larger business school community are watching closely to see if the requirement spreads to other departments within the college.

"That may be the big hundred-dollar question," says Norris Porter, assistant to the dean for student services at the College of Business. "I'm sure the rest of the school is going to be watching how this is received both by students and by our industry constituents to see if they might adopt it," he said.

The move is a dramatic shift for students accustomed to coming to class in hoodies, flip-flops, and tank tops. Since the new policy went into effect last week, a litany of complaints has arisen among students who find themselves faced with the burden of buying a new work wardrobe for class.

Justin Look, a senior who is the president of the college's Business Administration Assn., used to roll out of bed and throw on a hat and some jeans; now, he puts on black pants and dress shoes. He says he personally doesn't mind the requirement, but describes the mood among students as one of mixed emotions. "College students don't have a lot of money, so they're angry about buying new clothing and paying for dry cleaning every week," says Look, a marketing major.

This does not appear to be a concern for the marketing department faculty, who are piggybacking on a similar project undertaken by the school's Professional Sales Institute. "We said, 'It's high time we do this,'" says the school's Linda Showers, a professor of marketing who helped draw up the guidelines. "It's a professional look that doesn't require a lot of effort or time or money, frankly."

Students taking Personal Selling and Relationship Marketing courses have been required to abide by a business casual dress policy since the fall of 2003, and all students taking the professional sales sequence were required to follow suit last fall. It was only a matter of time before the marketing department stepped in, says Showers.

Strictly Dressing to Impress

Showers and other faculty drew up the "Business Casual Professional Dress Code" requirements last winter, sending out a memo to students this summer with details on the code, along with the school's rationale for the move. Included in the memo were detailed guidelines that cautioned students against wearing dresses or skirts "shorter than four inches above the knee," and prohibited them from wearing cargo pants, jeans, and sweatpants, among other items. "Clothing that works well for the beach, yard work, dance clubs, exercise sessions, and sports contests are not appropriate for a professional appearance," the memo reads. Hats are also not permitted, though allowances are made for students who need to wear head covering for religious or cultural reasons.

If students don't adhere to the dress code, they get a zero for the day and are asked to leave the classroom. The faculty member that implements the punishment is required to talk with the student about why the outfit is inappropriate for the classroom.

The move has drawn criticism from human resources consultants, including Pegine Echevarria, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's National Workplace Diversity Expertise Panel, who believes faculty at the school might be asking too much of students, especially if they are freshmen or sophomores. "They're going to find themselves bopping heads with students from a cultural and a youth perspective," she says.

Legally and Otherwise Accepted

Legally, however, it appears that the school is within its rights to ask students to abide by the dress code. The memo sent out to students was approved by the school's legal department, Longfellow says.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, says he had never heard of a case where a dress code was disputed at a college or graduate level. Dress codes at public elementary schools are disputed because there is a "compulsory nature" to the education, he says. Students who attend higher education institutions go of their own volition, he notes. "I can't find any instance where a question like this has ever been litigated," he said.

Marketing students at the school are gradually beginning to accept, and even embrace, the new dress code standards. Students from Pi Sigma Epsilon, the school's co-ed professional marketing fraternity, ordered polo shirts with the fraternity's letters on them, rather than the T-shirts they used to buy—which are now not allowed in class. With the polos, they can still wear their fraternity's letters to class, says Jen Miller, a senior marketing major who is president of the fraternity.

However, most marketing students are unhappy that the requirement isn't being implemented uniformly within the entire College of Business, Miller adds. Marketing students don't always have time to change after classes that require the dress code; as a result, they find themselves standing out in their nonmarketing classes. "We're accepting this as a privilege, but still, the other people are sitting in class with their pajama pants on and we have to wear high heels, or other dress shoes," Miller says. "You can spot the marketing majors on campus. This definitely singles us out."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.