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From MBA to Gym Class: The College of Business at Illinois State University

The $28k MBA Nanny

Congratulations, Illinois State University. You’ve turned your MBA program into a phys-ed class.

About two weeks ago, Illinois State University made the higher education newsrounds by requiring that students in the College of Business adhere to a dress code on campus. College Freedom expressed concerns about the restrictions and so did I [to date, I still haven't gotten a response from the College of Business regarding my prospective student status].

InsideHigherEd.com reports this week that ISU has decided to uphold the dress code – but they’ve tweaked the policy to allow for up to 10% of one’s grade to be determined by “professionalism.”

You know, the same way a K-12 student is punished for not having gym clothes.

Proper attire in a physical education setting is a safety issue. To date, I’m not aware of anyone in an MBA program bringing injury upon themselves or others for wearing jeans in a lecture.

InsideHigherEd.com says:

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.”

ISU thinks its students are apparently too dumb to recognize themselves that jeans and an Iron Maiden t-shirt aren’t appropriate attire for a client meeting. Out of state tuition at ISU’s College of Business is ~$28,000/year. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to have listened to your mother and, if that didn’t take, hire a part-time nanny to dress you before work?

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.

A common sign of backpedaling – especially backpedaling when one’s proverbial pants are already at one’s ankles – is overlapping a criticized policy with an existing policy. Codified standards of conduct are important and necessary to ensure a civil academic environment; unfortunately for the proponents of the dress code plan, they’re justifying the new draft by citing support for a code that already covers most of the regulations. It isn’t a strong case.

Moving on:

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.)

… and this is the real tragedy.

Horstein and a largely-complacent student body are comfortable with having 10% of their evaluation come from non-academic criteria – including in graduate programs such as the MBA track.

I’ll steal a one-line description of the MBA curriculum from Wikipedia:

“MBA programs expose students to a variety of subjects, including economics, organizational behavior, marketing, accounting, finance, strategy, operations management, international business, information technology management, supply chain management, project management and government policy.”

An MBA program is singularly demanding; it’s difficult enough to justify candidates [generally] needing to work for a few years before starting the degree. The context that work experience brings to the intellectual rigor of the MBA curriculum produces a graduate who is well-prepared to lead in the business world and tackle the ever-evolving problems inherent in the field.

And now 10% of one’s readiness for that world is determined by one’s fashion sense and commitment to ironing clothes before stepping foot on campus. 10% of that MBA is now vocational.

Unsurprisingly, ISU’s leaders are as patronizing and condescending toward Holstein and other student leaders as they are toward the student body as a whole:

[Marketing Dept. Chair Tim] 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.”

They’re adults, Chairman Longfellow. You’ll notice their “overall professionalism” enhance itself when you start treating them as adults.

I’m not sure if Horstein and the student body are done with this issue, but it sounds that way:

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.

Yet they still appear to have given up.

Tim Longfellow’s lack of logic had to have hurt his GMAT scores a great deal:

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.

Most of your students “have recently completed or will soon complete internships” and your graduate students come in with work experience, yet the College of Business needs to mandate their dress to teach them about professionalism in the real world? I have to ask – weren’t those internships and jobs undertaken at real, functioning business in that real world?

The summary? Poor, offensive judgment, condescending treatment of its students, bizarre backpedaling and a total lack of logic.

Again, ISU: Congratulations on your new vocational business program that is, as Longfellow and your other leaders have demonstrated, 10% gym class.

5 Responses to “From MBA to Gym Class: The College of Business at Illinois State University”

  1. I have trouble with using subjective criteria to determine any part of a grade, but I don’t really object much to the dress code (although I think it’s a bit over the top if students are just going to class.) I find it surprising that they felt the need to implement it in an MBA program, given the way our MBA students dress), but undergraduates are a different story. I’ve had students come to give presentations at 8 o’clock in the morning wearing see-through dresses, and had to send them back to put something decent on. I’ve had students (again, undergrads, not MBAs) come to class in pajamas and those stuffed animal footies. We have corporate sponsors for our class: The students who win the case competition (the final project) get something, typically internships. One semester, the corporation (unidentified) reneged because the team winning the competition looked like a bunch of, well, stinking hippies from the folklore department.

    In class, I don’t care what they wear. But when they’re giving presentations, they’re representing the school.

  2. Matthew says:

    I feel the same way – presentations, especially involving outside parties or sponsors, warrants professionalism. And, of course, minimum standards should apply at all times [ie., clothes one can't see through].

    The two most serious problems with this dress code are the subjective grading element and that students are required to adhere to the code anywhere on campus.

  3. Troy says:

    Since I abhor “me too” posts, I opted not to comment when this was originally posted as I am in full agreement with the explicit “silliness” of such a dress code. But another element is present in this case: an element that is actually of tremendous value, although implicitly so, and therefore not readily visible. So in the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade…

    In “The Real World”, and NOT that waste of film which is on MTV, life is not fair. Jobs, business, bosses, corporations, and especially customers – none of them are fair, and most of the time, most decisions made by or pertaining to these people & groups are very subjective. Yes, numbers talk, but we all know they can be made to say pretty much whatever we want them to say. And honestly, as MBA’s, that’s our job. I am an MBA, I know of lots more, and this is our world. Planet Subjective.

    MBA’s are taught finance, statistics, law, marketing, organizational development & behavior, process control, etc., Unfortunately the vast majority of B-Schools have not even yet begun to think of including the “suck it up, quit whining, figure it out for yourself, and deal with it – just like in The Real World” component.

    Intentionally or not, it appears that ISU has now added that component to their MBA curriculum. That doesn’t mean students should not try to change it. That doesn’t mean that people can’t complain about it (as long as they have a solution recommendation!) That doesn’t even mean that administrators can’t waffle, or flex the details, or completely do away with -or strengthen- the code. Because those are the things reasonable people try to do when faced with unfair, subjective decisions that affect them. I’ve been fighting to not have to wear a tie my whole life – talk about subjective, a tie is purely “fashion”, and has absolutely no use outside of fashion! But every time I have to meet with someone from outside of my organization, or engage in a more “official”, or formal piece of company business, I still put on a tie!

    However, in having to deal with an unfair, subjective, restrictive dress code while also having to spend hours in class, studying, doing papers, reading, etc., these students are getting “learn how to deal with things that aren’t fair because you’ll be dealing with unfair, subjective things your whole life – 101″ for free.

    Hmm – maybe it’s not such a bad deal after all.

  4. Matthew says:

    Troy,

    You’ve brought up a solid point – there’s no question that the dress code regulations mirror quite a few dicta in the real world.

    But if one waits until a graduate program for that dose of reality, they’re in trouble.

    Does it provide exposure to a basic facet of professional life? Yes. Has an MBA student likely encountered that before? Yes. If I were an MBA student in ISU’s program, I’d be miffed that my institution put forward any time/effort to cover the basic realities of adulthood.

    If they need to focus on these issues, it speaks volumes about either the quality of their student body or, more likely, the way ISU sees their student body.

  5. National Association Of State Boards Of Accountancy says:

    Glad to see someone is staying on top of things.

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