News media recently reported that Lincoln University in Pennsylvania was requiring their students who have a body-mass index (BMI) over 30 to pass a physical fitness course in order to graduate. This policy, which has been in existence for a few years, is just now getting media attention and is being objected to by some Lincoln students and faculty. Lincoln argues that as an institution of higher education, it has an obligation to make sure that the physical well-being of the students is looked after. In fact, the chair of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, pointed to obesity problems in some Black communities and their linkages to heart disease, diabetes and stroke, in defense of the institution’s efforts. Lincoln wants to teach students about healthy lifestyles. On the other hand, some students and faculty don’t think a college or university should be able to regulate one’s body weight.
Physical education had long been considered an integral part of one’s intellectual development. Like many colleges and universities, HBCUs have historically had physical education courses as part of core institutional requirements. In recent decades, most institutions have done away with these requirements, considering them antiquated and viewing students as adults who can make choices about their physical well-being.
At first I wondered why Lincoln University would create a policy aimed at raising its students’ consciousness about issues of weight and health. However, upon reflection, perhaps the policy is undergirded by the right spirit. Dr. James L. DeBoy, the chair of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation is right – as a nation, we have an obesity epidemic and it’s growing among young people. It has become especially troublesome among some lower-income communities, including Black communities. Obesity is linked to many diseases that are prominent in some Black communities. Perhaps Lincoln is being proactive and taking a bold step to counter unhealthy eating practices and sedentary lifestyles. As the institution nurtures the brains of its students, perhaps it should also nurture the bodies as well. Perhaps issues of health and wellness are even more crucial within Black communities. And maybe Lincoln is out in front of most other colleges and universities in terms of its concern for the physical well-being of its students.
On the other hand, a college or university collecting students’ BMIs and telling students they are too heavy doesn’t quite sit well with me. Institutions of higher education collect other sensitive data, but collecting students’ BMIs, which are not a good indicator of health, seems a bit over the top. Perhaps incorporating healthy living into the core curriculum and extra-curriculum in meaningful ways is the best route. I think Lincoln University has good intentions but the devils in the details.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).