November 27, 2009, 7:30 am

A University Takes Aim at Obesity


You might worry about your body weight fluctuating in college, but did you ever think that gaining the notorious “freshman 15″ could keep you from graduating?

National Public Radio reported this week that at Lincoln University, a historically black college in rural Pennsylvania, over 20 students are in jeopardy of not receiving diplomas due to their weight.

In 2006, the university instituted a requirement that students’ body mass indexes, calculated as weight in pounds divided by height in inches squared, be measured upon matriculation. Those students whose BMIs exceed 30, the threshold of obesity on the BMI scale, must take a special one-credit gym class in order to graduate.

This spring, the first class subject to this stipulation is due to don caps and gowns, and the 15% of students whose BMIs were judged to be excessive back in 2006 must have taken HPR 103 fitness walking/conditioning, or else they won’t receive their bachelor’s degrees. There are still some 24 seniors who must take the class, with one semester to go.

A look at the school’s newspaper, The Lincolnian, reveals resistance to the weight-related course requirement. Sharifa Riley quoted two peers and one professor in her piece, “BMI Requirement Causes Uproar:”

“What’s the point of this? What does my BMI have to do with my academic outcome?” asked Dionard Henderson, a freshman. “Some students on campus are just confused why a certain BMI has to be a requirement. Are there not a sufficient amount of prerequisites to complete prior to graduating from college?”

“‘I don’t necessarily agree with the BMI being a requirement,’ said Dr. Yvonne Hilton, a professor in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation department. “It is understood that obesity in America is growing fast, but maybe there should have been a different approach in informing the students about their health and building their awareness.”

Sophomore Lousie Kaddie agrees. “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,” she added.

In an interview on Tuesday, Michelle Norris of NPR asked James DeBoy, chairman of the department of health, physical education and recreation at Lincoln, to justify the school’s policy. He responded with a kind of in loco parentis defense, advocating the university’s duty to arm its students with a healthy lifestyle awareness:

“We know that obesity and its co-morbidities are going to rob individuals of quality and quantity of life. What good is it to go through college, get your bachelor’s degree at Lincoln University, go get your graduate degree, work for five, six, seven years, and all of a sudden, you experience a catastrophic health issue associated with obesity? That would be a tragedy. We believe that it’s our professional educators’ responsibility to alert students to this.”

Ms. Norris asked Mr. DeBoy about the school’s culpability in student obesity, with a dining hall that “does not always offer the healthiest of choices.”

The Choice spoke to a Lincoln alumna, Danielle Gogetta Wooten of the class of 2009, who expressed this very opinion: “I just think it contradicts itself. Everyday, they have hamburgers and fries and pizza in the cafeteria. The salad bar is slim. It’s a bunch of grease.”

Responding to this on NPR, Mr. DeBoy lamented the school’s remote location, its under-funding and the high cost of healthy foods, but he concluded that, though its messages might be slightly contradictory, the school is better off taking what he views as a step in the right direction.

As for those seniors who still have to pass fitness walking and conditioning, we’ll stay tuned to see if, come May, they are all able to cross the stage.

According to the Lincolnian’s Web site, some staff members who oppose the policy are planning to bring it up for discussion at the school’s next faculty meeting on Dec. 4.

What do readers of The Choice think about a university’s right to mandate a class based on a student’s weight? Please use the comment box below to let us know.

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science

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