In the end, it was the prospect of a predominantly black school being accused of discrimination that led Lincoln University to drop its requirement for an exercise class, the professor who proposed the idea said yesterday.
Good riddance, said several students who had opposed the mandate that obese students take the course in order to graduate.
James DeBoy, chairman of Lincoln's health, physical education and recreation department, reluctantly proposed the change at a faculty meeting Friday, where the course was made voluntary by a near-unanimous vote. Most students at the meeting also were opposed to a mandatory course, several in attendance said.
DeBoy said that for obese people, "a group that is already facing challenges, ridicule and jokes, the concern that was raised [by the faculty] was: Should the university add to that, especially . . . a historically black college or university." For most, he said, the answer was no.
Sharifa Riley, 20, a junior at Lincoln, said the class had added to some students' perception that they were singled out for criticism. "A lot of obese students already feel discrimination against them just because they weigh more than people think they ought to," she said.
Since 2006, the university had told students with a body mass index over 30 - the height-weight ratio commonly used as a threshold for unhealthful obesity - that they had to take the class to graduate. DeBoy said he believed Lincoln was the only college or university in the United States to have that requirement, with the exception of military institutions such as the U.S. Naval Academy.
The debate about the requirement became heated this year, when about two dozen seniors at the 2,100-student university in southern Chester County who had not taken the course were told that they would not get a degree if they didn't take the class. An article about the controversy last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education attracted widespread attention. Subsequent criticism led the faculty to take a second look at the policy.
On Friday, DeBoy proposed that instead of the mandatory class, students enrolled in a required freshman wellness course to be given an overall health risk assessment and invited to take a voluntary for-credit exercise course if that would maximize their "quality and quantity of life."
"When you say discrimination, the emotional overlay rises up and blocks everything else," he added. . . . "The term just overwhelms so many people, particularly those who have experienced it. It just rose up and prevented us from getting to the next layer - the prize - health and quality of life."
Riley said that a mandatory class was not just perceived as bias; it is bias. "It's discrimination if they tell one group, 'You're too fat, you have to take this course,' and they tell another group, "You're OK, you don't have to take it," she said. "If everyone had to take the course, that would have been better."
Riley, who attended the faculty session Friday, added that "all the students I've talked to were happy about the decision."
Junior Lakeishia Fleet, 20, said that "it's one thing to ask me to take a course and another to force me." The new policy "is a good idea; it gives us a choice," she said. "Some people do want to lose weight and don't know how to."
Fleet said she was glad the debate was over. "Now we can get back to worrying about finals, not a weight class," she said.