Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Put Down That Turkey Leg! Lincoln University Has Its Eye on Your Waistline

November 30th, 2009 by Ajuan Mance


From the New York Times:

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, more than 20 students are in jeopardy of not receiving diplomas because of their weight.

In 2006, the university instituted a requirement that a student’s body mass index, calculated as weight in pounds divided by height in inches squared, be measured upon matriculation. Students with a B.M.I. exceeding 30 — the threshold of obesity — must take a special one-credit gym class to graduate.

The first class subject to this rule is due to don caps and gowns this spring, and the 15 percent of students whose B.M.I. was judged to be excessive back in 2006 must have taken HPR 103 fitness walking/conditioning to receive their bachelor’s degrees. Some 24 seniors still must take the class, with one semester to go.

Rebecca Ruiz, for The New York Times

Like Hampton University’s aquatics program (developed in response to the high proportion of drowning victims who are Black), Lincoln University’s BMI requirement was instituted in order to address a public health issues that hits Black communities particularly hard. With diabetes and obesity afflicting greater and greater numbers of African American people at younger and younger ages, many African Americans believe it is time for Black leaders, organizations, and institutions to take action.

I admire Lincoln University for seeking to address Black rates of obesity, but I am disappointed in the ham-handed approach. Shaming people by singling them out for their BMI is more likely to harm than help those individuals who are already struggling with weight and body image issues.

Hampton has had significant success in getting more Black men and women to learn to swim and to make swimming a part of their fitness program, simply by increasing awareness of the importance of knowing how to swim and then making competent and compassionate instruction readily available to the campus community.

Lincoln University could learn a lot from Hampton’s approach. An on-campus awareness campaign to inform students of the benefits of healthy eating and regular exercise might be a good replacement for the current BMI requirement. Increased instruction in fitness, weight training, and other non-team-based althletic activities (kayaking, hiking, yoga, martial arts) at times that are convenient for students (including evenings and weekends) would also be a big help. Events like a “Lincoln Challenge,” in which administrators, faculty, and students would join together to achieve specific fitness goals might also be a good idea. Ideally, those goals would be related to weight only indirectly (like being able to run, bike, walk, or swim a certain distance). Perhaps Lincoln could hold a 10k or team traithlon at the end of the school year.

There are so many ways to encourage people to make healthier eating and activity choices without undertaking such a punitive and shame-based approach as the HPR 103 requirement for those with a 30+ BMI. I would have expected more sensitivity and thoughtfulness from this outstanding institution. The Lincoln U faculty seems poised to overturn this requirement at an upcoming meeting.

Stay tuned.

Posted in African American Students, African Americans, Black Colleges, Black Students, Current Events, Higher Education

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