Too fat for a B.A.? University adds BMI requirement for graduation

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Pennsylvania's Lincoln University has instituted a requirement that first-year students who arrive on campus with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher must either lower their BMI below 30 or take a one-unit course called "Fitness for Life" in order to graduate.

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides some details on the university's reasoning:

The point is to keep students healthy, says James L. DeBoy, chair of Lincoln's department of health, physical education, and recreation. All Lincoln students have long been required to pass a two-credit course called "Dimensions of Wellness," which covers array of subjects, such as alcohol, drugs, nutrition, and sexual health.

While revising the department's curriculum in 2006, however, Mr. DeBoy and his colleagues concluded that the university should do more to help students become more physically fit. The result was a course designed for students who are overweight. It includes walking, Pilates exercises, and fitness games.

Needless to say, there's been an uproar on the campus of the historically black university and throughout the blogosphere. The student newspaper, The Lincolnian, reported students' reactions.  From sophomore Lousie Kaddie:

"It's not up to Lincoln to tell me how much my BMI should be. I came here to get a degree and that's what the administration should be concerned with."

In the comments on the Lincolnian article, members of the community ask a number of questions, including:

  • Why is the university focusing solely on BMI and physical education, when its cafeteria could be offering better-quality, fresher, organic food to its students?
  • Does the university really want to lose bright, motivated students and prospective students who happen to have a BMI of 30 or higher?
  • Why only target those who are declared obese based on the BMI, which is already a controversial way of measuring health?
  • Why make high-BMI students pay for an extra credit hour, when students with a lower BMI do not have to do so?
  • Why is the college not offering the same intervention to students with eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia?
  • Is the college opening itself up to discrimination suits?

One commenter, Catta, noted a sad irony:

Finally, even cursory research into the history of the BMI shows its distasteful links to Victorian-era social darwinism. I am sure people know the tenets of this odious theory, and that they can then understand why I find it ironic that a university with a predominantly African American student body would endorse and use BMI to assess its students' worth.

One commenter on the Chronicle piece who appears to be a Lincoln student sees the requirement as drawing on stereotypes of African-American women:

[T]his is purely targeting blacks because of the stereotyped heavy, large-bottomed women. You want people to be fit--give them free health club memberships with FREE personal trainers. And look at the swill you are serving in the dorms--a carb-addict's dream.

Another Chronicle commenter thinks class is also a consideration:

Lincoln University doesn't want a lot of graduates who look lower class. Upper class people tend to be thinner.

Yet another commenter sees the policy as completely reasonable:

Lincoln's policy promotes good health and is not onerous. It is also fair, so long as freshmen know about it before matriculating. Obesity is associated with many health risks, and people habitually underestimate their caloric intake while overestimating their level of exercise. A mandatory course targets those at greatest risk. A BMI of 30 is also pretty high, except for the unusually well-muscled. A physical exam could distinguish the healthy from the unhealthy. In the worst case, failing the standard compels taking only a 1-credit hour course, not expulsion. In this respect, the course is akin to an incidental area requirement.

Yes, Lincoln could choose to tie alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drug use to graduation. But it chooses to do something about obesity. There is nothing inherently hypocritical in this choice, or in choosing to administer one policy instead of a gamut.

Jezebel published a brief item on the requirement, which also elicited a range of comments, including one from cand86, who asked, "[H]aven't we already proven that BMI is BULLSHIT?"  Others took the conversation in an interesting direction about how P.E. during K-12 could dissuade people from exercising later in life.

kavitabk linked to a recent critique of BMI by State University of New York Professor Emeritus Theo Pavlidis and added,

BMI is based on a "normal curve" that is derived from the range of weights found in French and Scottish (male, of course) soldiers (who were CONSCRIPTED--i.e. not exactly well-fed) in the 1830s. So it's a good measure for an entire world's population in 2009...how?

Bryce, a former coach commenting on an article at Inside Higher Ed about the Lincoln University requirement, had this to say:

The real question for me is whether Universities should be in the business of promoting the physical health of students. As an Exercise Science grad and former coach, my belief is yes. Most institutions make claims to the tune of "we prepare students to function effectively in society" and it seems like physical health ought to be part of that preparation. So, if that logic holds then it also follows that institutions should have criteria to determine whether students have achieved these outcomes. I don't know that I agree with the criteria that Lincoln has selected, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to hold students to some sort of standard with regard to health and wellness. After all, we do the same thing for the sciences, mathematics, and literature. Would we let a student graduate who had not fulfilled their math requirement? If they failed their placement exam as a freshman and never demonstrated mastery of basic mathematical concepts, would we still graduate them?

It's interesting how those of us in education want to enforce high standards in the "core" areas, but have no problem justifying low performance when it comes to physical health.

Harriet Brown at Feed Me! calls the incident an "epic fail."  She continues,

Some people object to the fitness course on libertarian grounds. Not me. I think good health and fitness is part of what we should be teaching children and practicing ourselves. But threatening or punishing larger people because of their size is not a useful strategy. As a researcher from the National Institutes of Health said recently, the number-one cause of obesity in this country is dieting. Programs like this buy in to the fat-is-unhealthy mindset. They also buy in to the thin-is-healthy mindset. By conflating weight with disease they do everyone a grave disservice.

Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass is one of those who adopt a libertarian critique, calling the requirement evidence of a "nanny campus":

I'm a huge fitness nut. I exercise every day, and believe it's vital to everything from mood to sleep patterns to energy level to mental acuity to managing chronic pain to just being healthy. But I don't think colleges and universities should be in the business of creating phys ed requirements--particularly when that involves singling people out as Lincoln has done. Shouldn't it be enough to do some basic education about healthy lifestyle choices as part of the res life program, to back that up with healthy menu options in on-campus cafeterias, to support student-led clubs centered on sports and fitness--and then to get on with the business of education?

Personally, I'm uncomfortable with colleges acting in loco parentis.  Encouraging physical fitness is one thing; requiring it is another thing altogether, especially since--as is made clear by commenters across the blogs I cited above--there are mental health issues tied up with physical education, obesity, weight, and fitness.  That said, I would like to see more colleges taking seriously the call for healthier, organic food in their dining halls--and evangelizing to students about the benefits to their bodies, their minds, the environment, and the local economy of eating fresh, local food when it's available.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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