Lincoln U. Ends Obesity Rule

Faculty members vote to keep health class that set off national debate, but to make it optional.
December 7, 2009

For the past few weeks, "Fitness for Life" may well have been the most discussed college course around. From now on, however, no one at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania will be required to take it.

The course became famous because of a requirement adopted at Lincoln for classes that entered in 2006 or later: that any students with body mass index scores above 30 show that they have lost weight or taken the course by the time they graduate. This year's seniors were the first to be covered by the requirement, attracting publicity that set off a national debate and Friday's faculty vote. At that meeting, faculty voted on a policy that will encourage students who are obese to take the course, but to end the stipulation that these students enroll in the class as a graduation requirement if they don't lose weight.

Ivory V. Nelson, president of Lincoln, said in an interview Saturday that the faculty "wanted to keep what we were doing, but wanted to send a message that we were not singling out any group." Nelson said he believes Lincoln is correct to try to identify students whose obesity may be dangerous, and to encourage them to learn more about nutrition and health. "We haven't stopped what we were doing," he said. The changes are to address "a perception" that the university was unfairly focusing on some students.

Over the past two weeks, Nelson said, he has received many calls from other colleges seeking information about how to set up programs to help obese students. "The discussion over the last two weeks has been a great one in the sense that we brought attention to the matter," he said. And regardless of whether the course should be required, "at the end of the day, the issue is still there."

Some critics of the policy questioned whether Lincoln might be breaking the law by requiring some students -- based on health conditions -- to take a specific course. But Nelson said that legal considerations did not come into play. "The jury is still out" on whether the requirement was legal, he said. "We weren't addressing the legal issue."

Obesity is a serious problem in the United States generally, and on many campuses. Many colleges have adopted policies or programs to encourage healthy diets, but most of these programs focus on such issues as the food served on campus, and Lincoln is believed to be the only university that had a specific course requirement for students with certain body mass index levels.

While Nelson said he was happy to have had Lincoln set off the debate over what colleges should do about obesity, many faculty members, students and alumni have been less than pleased with the attention. Lincoln, founded in 1854, was the first historically black college created in the United States (Cheyney University is older, but wasn't founded as a college). Lincoln's alumni include Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes -- and many supporters of the university were distressed to find the institution becoming known for having what many came to call "the fat class."

The Philadelphia Daily News on Friday quoted a faculty member as saying "the school is becoming the laughingstock of the whole world," and cited an e-mail sent by another faculty member to colleagues, saying: "Health is definitely important but should Anglo-European images of weight and body mass be imprinted on the minds of the young people who are our students?"

James L. DeBoy, chair of Lincoln’s health, physical education and recreation department, has been the most public proponent of the requirement. Prior to the faculty vote, he distributed a memo to his colleagues, urging them to "stay the course" and keep the requirement. DeBoy noted that his colleagues had been receiving and reading "acerbic" commentary on the requirement, but urged them not to dwell on such criticism.

"As educators we must be honest with our students and inform them when behavior, attitude, knowledge bases, or habits of mind are not what we, the faculty, deem as acceptable," he wrote. "Any factor/ trait/ characteristic that we believe will hinder students’ maximum development and full realization of life goals must be: (1) brought to their attention; (2) substantiated as being detrimental; and (3) adequately redressed. Such feedback will, at times, be unsettling, awkward, and distressing to students and faculty alike. By all means, these messages must be delivered in a caring, sensitive, nurturing way. In our heart of hearts we know that obesity robs individuals of both quality and quantity of life. We inflict greater injustice on our students today and in the years to come when we know what we ought to do but are hesitant to do so because of short-term adverse effects."

After the faculty vote, DeBoy said via e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that he was not distressed because of the continued commitment to the course and to raising the issues involved. "While the method may have changed, the learner outcome has remained constant: empower students with the requisite knowledge, skills, attitudes, and habits of mind to reduce/eliminate the ravaging effects of hypokinetic disease and their associated threats to both quality and quantity of life," he said. "We are not married to any particular method that accomplishes this end result … as long as that method delivers the targeted outcome in a manner that best serves the student."


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