First, I called the math department at UC Davis, the closest University of California campus. They asked if I got my degree in California; when I replied that I had not, they said there was nothing they could do for me.
So I called CSU Sacramento. There I spoke to a gentleman who was more than willing to meet with me, and I scheduled an appointment to go see him. Having never been to a "civilian" university before, I dressed as I thought appropriate--slacks and a collared shirt. I mean, this wasn't an interview, but I wanted at least to make a good impression.
I arrived a few minutes early for my appointment and, since it was obvious the professor was in his office speaking to someone, I waited in the hall. A few minutes later a person left the office and started walking down the hall. He was wearing cut-off shorts, a t-shirt, no shoes, and his Afro-style hair bounced behind him as he walked. I was mortified that anyone would dress that way to speak to someone so high up in the math department! A minute or so later that same guy came back around the corner and said, "Darren? Great, come on in."
That's a very long lead-in to this post about appropriate dress standards for professors:
To appreciate the connection between respect for authority and outward appearances, consider the one setting obsessed with maintaining authority —courts. Judges always dress the part though sartorial details vary. Severe black robes are standard while some wear special hats, even wigs and all sit high above the court proceedings. To drive home respect, judges are addressed with “your honor” or “may it please the court” and lawyers must ask permission to “approach to the court” for private conservation. Discussions are all judge-controlled and disrespect is punishable by contempt of court. All rise when the judge enters and nobody would dare catch up on e-mails during a trial. This is the physical aspect of respect for rule of law. Professors should be so lucky.I know teachers who wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops to school. I just can't do it. Maybe, just maybe, if they wear dressy-looking shorts, maybe I can see that, but they don't. To me it's just not appropriate, for all the reasons quoted above and in the rest of that post. I wear slacks and collared shirts to school, and on Fridays I might wear jeans and a staff t-shirt.
Other knowledge-based professions similarly understand the need to draw a sharp line between the expert and the client, the erudite and the ignorant. You can always spot top trial lawyers—sharply-tailored dark suits, flashy cuff-links, elegant ties, expensive leather attaché cases, real fountain pens, costly Swiss watches, perfect haircuts, and all the other “superficial” details that announce, “I am successful, very successful so you better listen to what I tell you!” Even doctors in a profession hardly famous for its Beau Brummels still wear ties and, when not in white, suits and decent sport coats.
The justification is obvious: who would heed a lawyer, financial advisor or doctor who showed up in dirty jeans, a frayed sport shirt, filthy running shoes etc. etc., who carried his professional papers in a nylon backpack? Not even a department dominated by radical egalitarians would hire a job applicant who arrived as if he was on the way to the beach. This would be insulting, a sign of disinterest in the job, and these egalitarians would be right.
At a minimum, dressing well informs students that one is serious about classroom responsibilities. If I can spend an extra hour before class matching ties and shirts, checking for stains, polishing my wingtips, combing my hair and all the rest, you can certainly pay attention.
Now consider a student who arrives for the first day of class and sees a professor who resembles a 1960s hippy-like graduate student (Levis, rumpled un-tucked shirt etc.) and if male, scraggly facial hair wearing a baseball cap and if female, tacky “folk” jewelry and a permanent bad hair day? It could be worse—the political billboard tee-shirt to remind today’s uninformed youngsters that “Bush Lied and People Died.” It makes no difference that this instructor may have a doctorate from Harvard and is being fast tracked to an endowed chair. Cultural conditioning is inescapable and ubiquitous: respect is given to those who dress the part and when they refuse, deference is not forthcoming. Professors should not look like janitors or stand-up comics.
I don't remember where I heard or read this, but it's a rule of thumb I find appropriate for both students and teachers: if, when you get home from school, you don't feel like changing into something more comfortable, you're not appropriately dressed for school.
Update: By the way, the Sac State professor wanted me to take three more math courses before he'd bless my transcript. I ended up taking the three tests instead.