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Public state college enacts dress code

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

LIVINGSTON — Tank tops are out at the University of West Alabama, and there’s not a “whale tail” in sight.

West Alabama this semester became one of the nation’s first state-supported universities to enact a dress code for students. Enforcement is more by gentle encouragement than strict edict, but many of the school’s 1,900 students are still steaming.

Sleeveless undershirts commonly referred to as “wife beaters” are against the rules, as are tube tops and net shirts at the rural campus near the Mississippi line. Please: No baseball caps, do-rags or bare feet in class.

Waistlines sagging far enough to reveal boxer shorts or the tops of thongs — “whale tails” — are banned. So are shorts, miniskirts, jeans, T-shirts, sweat suits and flip-flops at major programs like honors convocations, career fairs or job recruitment days.

West Alabama administrators say they decided to impose the rules to improve the image of the campus and to help students learn what to wear in the workplace after graduation. More than half the school’s students, drawn largely from a poor, rural region of the state, are the first in their families to attend college, administrators say.

“Even as a freshman you should know about dressing appropriately,” said Danny Buckalew, vice president of student affairs.

Maybe so, but students say they don’t like being told what to wear.

‘Freedom and expression’

“I think it’s stupid. College is supposed to be about freedom and expression,” said B.J. Johnson, 19, an electrical engineering major from Foley.

“You can’t even wear pajamas, and I like wearing them around,” said his friend, Corby Smith, 20, a sophomore from Baltimore, majoring in criminal justice.

Kimberly Williams, 18, of Demopolis said she’d rather be able to decide what to wear on her own. But Williams prides herself on her appearance, and she said the rules have helped add a modicum of modesty that was missing before.

“I like it because some of the girls were always showing off their belly rings and things,” said Williams, who wants to be a traveling nurse. “I’m not going to go out looking like some throwed-away slave.”

Campus dress codes are the norm at high schools, church-affiliated colleges, military academies and medical schools. But few, if any, public universities have such rules, said Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors.

“It’s going to be a rare situation to come across this,” said Knight, director of the AAUP’s academic freedom program.

While a dress code may raise questions of freedom of expression, he said, banning lewd T-shirts or miniskirts on career days, as West Alabama has, is hardly an issue of academic freedom.

“The university has a responsibility to decide what will best serve its academic goals,” said Knight.

Buckalew said administrators came up with the rules both as a teaching tool and for health reasons: One student complained about sweaty athletes wearing sleeveless shirts reaching over the buffet line in the dining hall, which is open to the public.

“There were some basic hygiene issues,” said Buckalew.

He found no other public universities with dress codes while researching possible rules for West Alabama.

Students say some teachers have told them to leave class for dress code violations, and Buckalew said he and other administrators have tried to gently encourage students to comply with the rules by telling them to take off hats or pull up their pants.

“Most often they just say, `Yes, sir,’ pull them up and go on about their business,” he said.

Flagrant or persistent violators could face disciplinary procedures, he said, but no cases have been brought and potential penalties haven’t been decided upon.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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