November 30, 2009

In defense of "too-fat-to-graduate"

Controversy has been stewing around a policy at the historically-black Lincoln University requiring obese students (with a large waist and a BMI of 30+) to complete a physical education class before they graduate.

A number of students -- all obese, it seems -- have voiced outrage at this sensible policy because they see it as discriminatory and would rather see the requirement applied to everyone. However at Dartmouth, just as those who have poor proficiency at English have to enroll in Writing 2 and 3 (while others do not), and those without second language competency have to finish through the third level of a foreign language, and those who do not score highly on the math portion of standardized tests have to enroll in the lower-level Math 3 class, so too should obese students have to complete a P.E. class while their peers do not.

It's entirely appropriate to call this policy discrimination, but it's good discrimination. Obese students are clearly in need of this curriculum more than their thinner counterparts. In a perfect world, at a perfect Lincoln University, there would be ample funding to require physical education for all students. But when money's tight, it makes sense to target efforts; one group clearly seems to be in more need than others.

Writing in the school paper, 21-year-old Tiana Lawson complained "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." Well, Tiana, you may be getting good grades in your other classes, but if you're obese, you're failing in health and obviously could use some extra tutoring. That's like a Dartmouth student complaining about distributive requirements by saying he only came to college to study economics. Or an English major saying that she should graduate summa cum laude despite the fact that she keeps failing chemistry.

David Kairys, professor of law at Temple University Law School in Philadelphia, decried the policy as "paternalistic". Three words for you Dave: "in loco parentis." Colleges have a duty to their students to promote their safety and well-being. Unchallenged obesity at places like Lincoln undoubtedly robs more healthy years of life from students over the long-run than binge drinking ever could. Some think that the decision to enroll in these P.E. classes should be left up to the student. But, if the students are obese, they are clearly not making good decisions as it is. Can the college, acting in place of the parent, simply watch as the evidence of unhealthy behavior is paraded before its very eyes? It doesn't with alcohol. Should we as Americans be content to allow the gigantic externality costs -- in medical care alone -- caused by obesity to go without corrective action?

Lincoln University should be commended for this practical policy -- one that has the great potential for doing wonders in these kids' lives. Obesity is a major problem in Black America -- 4 out of 5 black women are overweight -- and it is inspiring to see a leading black university step up and set an example that all Americans should live by.


  1. Anonymous8:58 PM

    Except, unlike SATIIs and AP tests, BMI isn't a measure of how much you might know about health and fitness, which is what this class is designed to teach. A great many normal BMI students might know just as little about health and fitness -- and have just as many unhealthy habits -- as the obese students. Your analogy to Writing 2/3 doesn't work.

  2. Anonymous8:47 PM

    It's true that low BMI people don't know much about fitness, but isn't there a more pressing need to educate the obese? Your point suggest an inevitability to obesity. While education may not turn Fat Albert into Usain Bolt, it is a step in the right direction.