Hundreds of universities have done away with physical education requirements and swim tests in the past decade, but the latest is a sports juggernaut where athletes are urged to “play like a champion today” – the University of Notre Dame.
The university announced last week that freshmen will soon have to take two graded, one-credit courses on topics like wellness, academic strategies and spirituality instead of having to complete a year of physical education courses – for which there are a range of options – and pass a swim test.
The new first-year program, in place by fall 2015, will try to fill gaps in “student socialization,” “cultural competency” and independent learning with 250-student lecture courses and smaller breakout sessions in residence halls, according a report from the committee that recommended the change this month.
As a result of the shift, the department of physical education and wellness instruction – which includes about 13 non-tenure-track faculty – will close. The provost’s office will “work closely with those impacted to explore other opportunities for on-campus employment and to develop appropriate transitional strategies,” according to the report.
About 39 percent of colleges and universities required students to take physical education in 2010, down from 63 percent in 1998, researchers at Oregon State University and Western Oregon University found. 
But of the highly selective private institutions that still have physical education requirements – including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bryn Mawr College – Notre Dame certainly has the strongest athletics tradition. The physical education requirement meant Notre Dame was “recognized nationally as a leader” in the area, said Brad J. Cardinal, a professor of social psychology of physical activity at Oregon State.
Notre Dame is going forward with the change after a 17-13 vote by the Academic Council, a top policy-making group of the faculty and administrators. That vote margin is narrower than most the group takes on, said the Faculty Senate chair, Paul J. McGinn.
McGinn, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, said some faculty were concerned that one-credit, graded wellness courses will contribute to grade inflation, especially because Notre Dame’s academically stellar student body is likely to do well. The current physical education program is pass-fail. “There was a fair amount of skepticism about how are you going to give a grade and what’s the grade going to be?” McGinn said. “It wasn’t as warm of an embrace as the people who came up with it thought it would be.”
The proposal didn’t rouse too much dissent, McGinn said, because “it’s hard to find academic people who will stand up and say we will need to have physical education.”
Thomas E. Fuja, chair of electrical engineering, was on the physical education department’s review group that initially floated the change. He said it didn’t surprise him that the program was reorganized because physical education requirement was “very much unlike what you saw anywhere else in academia. There was a question of whether we were getting value out of that that seemed so at odds of what everyone else was doing.”
Cornell University is the only college among Notre Dame’s peers that still requires physical education, the group found. The Notre Dame faculty also only recommended keeping the swim test as long “there is a consequence to failing it” – which the university decided to not put in place.
The change "better enables us to meet the evolving needs of our students," Hugh Page, dean of the First Year of Studies program, said in a release.
The move will allow the university to channel more time in the first-year curriculum to discussions about stress and mental health. A quarter of Notre Dame students have serious mental health concerns, up 17 percent from a decade ago and in line with national trends, according to a study by the university’s counseling center.
Cultural competency studies in the new courses will also allow students to “develop a deeper understanding of the complex interactions of gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity and race in the U.S.,” according to the final committee’s report.
The university will still offer voluntary, free courses in activities like swimming and personal fitness. “Although this proposal eliminates the ‘physical’ part of physical education and wellness, it is expected that the course will help to promote a sustainable culture of physical wellness and wholeness that will, ultimately, inspire increased use of recreation and fitness offerings across campus,” the report reads.