Since he was named as president of Morehouse College in 2007, Robert M. Franklin has stressed the importance of defining education broadly, well beyond courses. He has been talking about the social and ethical obligations of those who are studying at the elite historically black college. Of late he has been calling for students to have "five wells" -- to be "well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced.”Those are objectives worthy of any institution of higher education, whether Historically Black, Ivy League, land grant or mid-major, or otherwise identified.
The push-back from Morehouse students is instructive.
Last week, the idea of being "well dressed" became much more specific, with the start of an "appropriate attire policy," under which Morehouse is joining a small group of colleges that have in recent years adopted dress codes. Morehouse's policy is generally being well received by students -- and college officials stress that 90-plus percent of students are already in compliance. But the policy is getting some criticism from gay students over the idea of regulating dress, and specifically for banning the wearing of women's attire.Twenty years ago, the identity-politics formulation was "multiple oppressions of race, class, and gender." There's no pushback on prison chic or do-rags or slaunchwise ball caps, which the identity politics crowd might defend as expressions of underclass authenticity. Perhaps Morehouse students grasp that authentic unemployment accompanies those symbols. It's the tunics and handbags and makeup -- upscale crossover accessories all -- that provoke the most criticism.
There's more at Outside the Beltway.
Somewhere, the notion of diversity in an institution comes into conflict with the notion of institutional purpose, wherein a different understanding of diversity might mean institutions with differing institutional purposes.
[Student Kevin] Webb is right, of course. One can be intelligent and dress like a slob — or someone of the opposite gender. Conversely, one can dress like an executive and still be a fool.
But Franklin is carrying on a longstanding tradition at places like Morehouse. Because it was harder for a black man to be considered intelligent or worthy of respect, a culture developed where black men of a certain station tended to dress much better and pay more attention to his manner of speaking than white men of similar status. It’s not as true as it was even twenty years ago — it’s been half a century since Brown and a generation since the Civil Rights Act of 1965 — but vestiges of that tradition remain. Most black professionals in their 50s or older still tend to pay more attention to their clothing and public image than their white counterparts.
Franklin, [comedian Bill] Cosby, and [President Barack] Obama clearly want to keep this culture alive. They realize that young black men running around with their underdrawers showing not only hinder their own chances for advancement but reinforce negative stereotypes.
Beyond that, Morehouse sees itself as something unique. Being a “Morehouse Man” is more akin to being a graduate of the Citadel or VMI than of, say, one of the Ivies. It’s a brand, not just an institution of higher education. And they want Morehouse men to project an image of success and professionalism. And, it would seem, manliness.