DURHAM — On the first day of class, everything N.C. Central University junior Ricky Magwood wore was much too big for him - from a billowy white T-shirt to the gold chain dangling nearly to his waist.
But it's hot out, Magwood argued. And he's an art student, so he's going to get messy anyhow.
Ricky: Your chancellor would like a word with you.
NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms thinks eye-catching outfits - whether risqué or just-plain sloppy - are obstacles to learning. This fall, he's put in motion a subtle campaign to eliminate such things as pajama pants to plunging necklines.
"Suggestive, revealing clothing, by men or women, should not be worn in a classroom," Nelms said recently. "And you shouldn't be wearing pajamas to class!"
Nelms' concerns are echoed across America's college campuses, where students routinely file into lecture halls in pajamas, baggy clothing or skirts better suited for a night out on the town. Universities are fighting back; some have imposed strict dress codes, others softer guidelines.
While the sloppy American college student isn't specific to historically black colleges, those institutions place a particularly heavy emphasis on appearance, said Marybeth Gasman, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies historically black institutions.
"Many people look at one African-American and see him or her as representative of all blacks," Gasman wrote in an e-mail interview. "People don't do that to whites - they are seen as individuals. The stakes are higher for African Americans. I understand that many HBCUs want to make sure that their students are seen in the best light and that they look professional when they go into the workforce."
At NCCU, Nelms is soft-pedaling his message by urging professors to talk about appearance. It is part of an ongoing series of initiatives Nelms has put in place to raise expectations since taking over at NCCU in 2007. Graduation and retention rates must rise. Employees are expected to be more respectful and responsive. And students should be presentable.
"Please dress appropriately for class," reads the syllabus for literacy enhancement, an undergraduate course enrolling 400 students in 20 class sections. "Men should not wear do rags or hats inside the classroom. Ladies should not wear mid-riff tops, mini-skirts or short-shorts in class."
'A fashion show'
There's plenty of skin on display these days on college campuses. Young women are more likely to dress provocatively - a shirt too tight, a skirt too short - many students say.
"I look at it like a fashion show," NCCU freshman Chelsea Gorski said. "You want people to notice you, but you don't want to be flashy."
Gorski hit the campus cafeteria one recent day wearing a lime-green top stretched over a lacy black camisole.
"It's like this top," said Gorski, nodding towards her chest. "I'd wear this without a cami if I was going to the club, but going to class, I wear a shirt under it."
The male offenders lean toward the disheveled, such as Magwood, whose first-day-of-class outfit also included baggy shorts and an Orlando Magic hat with the brim flipped up.
"I think this is sloppy," he conceded, "but not everyone can afford nice clothes."
Public universities in North Carolina don't have formal dress codes, but some private institutions do. Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh, for example, prohibits hats, do rags, bustiers, halters, pajamas, bedroom slippers and "Daisy Duke" shorts.
At NCCU, the issue can be dicey. There are no hard data to prove clothing can distract, just anecdotal evidence from professors. Administrators can't order students to buy new clothes, and they are wary of stifling free expression.
And what's OK to wear?
Bernice Johnson, dean of the University College, uses common sense.
"If there's a student with a dress so short people are whispering about it, that's a distraction," she said.
But not all students go to class dressed for a night of clubbing. Some well-dressed student leaders led a counter-revolution of sorts last year, handing out information cards defining terms such as "business casual" and noting what sort of dress was and was not acceptable.
And in some corners of campus, students and professors take it a step further.
On the first day of her senior-level career management course, business professor Shirrell McNeill led her students in a detailed discussion of acceptable dress. McNeill's discussion covered issues such as appropriate skirt lengths and the proper colors for men's neckties.
"You never know who's watching," McNeill tells her students. "There are professional recruiters on campus all the time, and you want to look like you're ready to get out there and make a difference right now."
For college students looking to get into the job market, a good first impression is particularly important when competing with people with more skills and experience, said Lindsey Hart, talent acquisition specialist with Red Hat, the Raleigh-based technology firm.
"It's the first thing you see," Hart said. "If someone has on something very tight or has something falling out, it will be noted."
McNeill's class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, the business school's designated "professional attire" days. That means students are to come to class dressed for a job interview - suits and ties for men, smart business suits for women.
And keep the cleavage hidden.
"I don't want to see everything falling out of your blouse," McNeill told her students. "That is really, really, really inappropriate."
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