LINCOLN UNIVERSITY has, in recent weeks, come under serious fire for a controversial course requirement designed to help obese students gain some control over their health.
The Fitness for Life was implemented at the historically black university in Oxford, Chester County, for 2006 freshmen classified as medically obese (having a body mass index, or BMI, over 30). They're now seniors, and some had been notified they wouldn't graduate if they didn't take the fitness course. Lincoln made a bold and courageous choice to tackle obesity head on - an issue that they know all too well is ravaging the black community.
According to a report released in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 36 percent of African-Americans are obese, more than any other racial or ethnic group (obesity rates are 29 percent for Latinos, 24 percent for whites).
The numbers are even worse for African-American women. According to the Office of Minority Health, "African-American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. About four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese." Yikes. That's a rate of about 80 percent.
But instead of getting a pat on the back for attempting a compassionate and commonsense approach to the problem, Lincoln got more like punched in the nose.
Tiana Y. Lawson's op-ed piece in the university newspaper The Lincolnian, "Too Fat To Graduate," sparked a hailstorm of criticism from the blogosphere and mainstream media that led the university to revise its policy.
Lawson wrote, "I didn't come to Lincoln to be told that my weight is not in an acceptable range. I came here to get an education which, as a three-time honor student, is something I have been doing quite well, despite the fact that I have a slightly high Body Mass Index. . . . I'm never going to be comfortable with this class, but I think I would be more understanding if this was a requirement for everyone. While I don't think it was the university's intention to make us feel excluded, that is precisely what they have done."
Dr. James L. DeBoy, chairman of Lincoln's Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, said that the rationale behind the original course was to help students who needed it. About 15 percent of Lincoln students are obese, he told me, adding, "Faculty has an obligation to be honest with our students."
DeBoy noted that "people of color are disproportionately affected with obesity comorbidities such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes . . . " The exercise requirement, he said, "was the faculty's attempt to put a dent in this epidemic of national obesity. To simply ignore and deny is not responsible, or what universities should be about."
T. Williams, a Philadelphia native and 2000 Lincoln grad, agreed, telling me, "I wish the program had been available when I was a student at Lincoln. Maybe I wouldn't have gained the freshman 50 and today be struggling with my weight and a host of health problems."
I, too, applaud the school for having the audacity to take on this challenging issue. Surely, the decision wasn't easy. School officials had to know that African-Americans are more accepting of excess weight, and they likely knew there would be fallout.
Earlier this month, the university reversed itself on Fitness for Life. Incoming freshmen still have to take a required wellness course, but the additional course will be optional.
Too bad the university backed away from a mandatory course for students who need it most, I say. What better place than one of the country's oldest historically black universities to raise awareness and help young black people take more proactive steps toward health and wellness?
Sure, we can continue to bury our heads in the sand, but it's at our own peril. A wise person once told me, "When you love someone, you give them what they need." That was the intent, I believe, of Lincoln's faculty. They were not trying to discriminate against any student; they are actively working to improve student health and wellness.
Kimberly Garrison is a certified personal trainer and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia(www.1on1ultimatefitness.com).