Basic Premise

Can a microbiology professor require students to run laps on the track during class for a grade, even if the class usually has no physical component to it?


As part of my role as a university professor, my college requires that I advise a number of undergraduate students on the progress on their degrees in the college. These meetings are short, usually no more than 10 minutes, and act as a quick waypoint to ensure that students are on track and having success with their studies. I ask if the student has any concerns generally and sometimes advise on career options or basic life advice, etc.

This past week, I had a student inform me that he is worried about his grade in an upper division [microbiology] (not the actual subject, but represenative of the type of subject) class. This student is a pre-med student who is on track to begin applying to medical school shortly. I have spoken with this student two times prior and he is an excellent student and has done very well in all of his classes up to this point. As such, I inquired as to why he was worried about his microbiology grade. He then proceeded to tell me that his microbiology professor bases part of their grade off of what he calls "Physical Involvement." (Or something like that).

Now, what is this "Physical Involvement" portion of the grade you might ask? Running. As in, let's go down to the fieldhouse and run a mile before class dismisses. (More on that in a moment).

However, the student in question is a huskier fellow for whom exercising and "physical involvement" is no easy task. Simply put, he is someone that the Centers for Disease Control in the United States would classify as obese.

Although only very loosely connected to microbiology, the professor in question has decided that since most of his class consists of students who will become physicians,* he wants to encourage holistic health practices in his students. Part of this, in his opinion, is maintaining a healthy body weight. He supposes that a heavyset physician cannot give advice on a patient's health without coming across as a hypocrite. Thus, this professor has made physical exercise part of the grade for the class.

Because the class is being taught on a 7-week instead of a 14-week schedule (summer class), each class period goes for 120 minutes instead of the usual 50 minutes. The professor has decided that for the last 30 minutes of the class, the class will walk over to the fieldhouse and run a mile. For credit. There are 20 class periods in the semester and each class period a student is given one point for running a mile at the end of class. The professor and TAs count the laps for the students. A student who completes a mile in each of the 20 class periods is given 20/20 for the "physical involvement" portion of the grade. A student who runs 9/10ths of a mile each class, but never completes the mile receives 0/20. It is all or nothing. This accounts for 20% of the grade. Hence, a student who never runs the full mile is pretty much guaranteed a B- or worse in the class. For someone who is trying to get into medical school, getting a B- in a core class is not ideal.

There supposedly (as per the student) is no way to make these runs up. In theory, there is no time limit (e.g. "You must do this in 6 minutes or better"), but the students are realistically only given about 10-15 minutes to complete the run before the professor needs to leave. The student in question here is the only runner too slow to complete a mile in that time.

Field Work

With all of this being told to me, I decided I needed to see this for myself. At the appointed time, I casually appeared at the fieldhouse in my running clothes and pretended to exercise. And sure enough, here came the microbiology class to run their laps. It was exactly as described by the student. (This had to be one of the oddest things I have ever seen at a university track. Some of these students ran their laps in semi-formal pants with leather shoes). Every student completed the run (some just barely), except for the student I am advising.

The Question

How do I proceed? Do I talk to the dean? Do I talk to the head of the microbiology department? The professor of the class is a long time professor at the university. He is known for being a bit zany. His class requirements seem completely irrelevant, but I'm not sure how (or if) I should intervene.

How much leeway should a professor be given to determine what "counts" in his or her class?

*The class is usually taught in the Spring Semester (January-May), but the college is running a special section this summer in order to accommodate about 20 or so pre-med students who had a conflicting class last semester. Normally the class would be a mix of pre-med students, microbiology majors, pre-pharmacy students, etc.

Update as of 3 April 2020

I spoke with the head of the microbiology department last semester about this issue. The professor in question here normally does not teach this certain microbiology course, nor does he usually teach any classes in the summer. (Part of the issue was that summer classes are twice as long, which gave enough time for the running component). To be brief, the department was aware of the running requirement. Because they had not had complaints, they allowed it to ride. (Good or bad, that's how it was). This professor is actually extremely highly regarded by the university faculty as a whole and it was a sticky situation.

In the end, the husky student I was advising got an A anyway. He worked out some deal with the professor where he (the student) would show up at 6 a.m. and run/walk laps with the professor for four weeks. The professor is a real softie at heart and he does care personally about his students. He's just very quirky. And he loves running. (He ran across America, Forrest Gump style. He still has the huge hair and beard, it's just white).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 15:54
  • 12
    When Academics meets full metal jacket Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 17:23
  • Not only is he on track to begin applying to medical school, but he's also on track to getting a B-, because he's on the track running poorly. Anyway, this story is pretty hilarious.
    – pushkin
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 21:18
  • 4
    Perhaps the other professor misunderstood what it means to make sure his students were on track? ;) Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 18:33
  • This question reminds me of government-mandated anti-fat programs, such as this: abc.net.au/news/2018-04-11/… You might be interested.
    – Allure
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 21:24

14 Answers 14


If the class is about microbiology, the students’ grade should depend on their knowledge of microbiology, and only on that.

(Edit: to clarify, “knowledge” covers things like lab skills and other things that have a connection to microbiology but aren’t strictly theoretical in nature. But not running. Definitely not running.)

I’ll assume based on OP’s description that this is taking place in the US. Even though I’m not a lawyer I would bet money that for the professor to tie grades in an academic class to athletic performance would constitute an obvious and blatant violation of one or more US laws. It very likely would also violate various policies of your university. For example, at my university the faculty code of conduct has a concept of “failure to meet the responsibilities of instruction”, which I know for a fact would cover the case of a professor spending a large amount of the class’s time on activities that are unrelated to the topic of the course.

Should I intervene when a colleague in a different department makes students run laps as part of their grade?

Obviously yes. You are the student’s undergraduate adviser. That makes you precisely the person positioned to help him when he is being treated in an abusive and probably illegal way by one of his professors.

How do I proceed? Do I talk to the dean? Do I talk to the head of the microbiology department?

Either of those persons sound like appropriate people to talk to. The chair would be the most appropriate, being the person directly above the misbehaving professor in the institutional hierarchy, so I suggest going to them, unless you have some specific reason to fear retaliation or other adverse consequences if you proceed in this way.

The professor of the class is a long time professor at the university. He is known for being a bit zany.

This is irrelevant. If the professor graded his students based on their looks, how much money they have, the number of hot dogs they can wolf down in 10 minutes, or any other similar criterion unrelated to their knowledge of microbiology, we would not be talking about the professor’s zaniness. Neither should we be talking about it in the current equally absurd scenario.

How much leeway should a professor be given to determine what "counts" in his or her class?

Any leeway a microbiology professor should or should not be given would be appropriate to discuss in the context of how they teach microbiology, and how they evaluate students’ knowledge of microbiology. What the professor is doing here is entirely unrelated to such activities, and as such, no leeway applies. As with the mention of zaniness, “leeway” is not even a relevant factor to discuss.

  • 53
    +1. In my opinion the abusive component amounts to a form of bullying and probably discrimination: nobody should get a lower grade in a theoretical course for being overweight. This professor is a liability to their institution.
    – Erwan
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 23:47
  • 5
    Grades almost always depend on more than the pure academic content of the course topic. Such as public speaking skills, language skills, research skills. And beyond that, things like making students tell about themselves and other ice-breaking activities are thought to be helpful to learning. This instructor could easily make an argument about how this activity is valuable and falls under academic freedom, making a big fight out of it at least. The school of course has the ability to exempt students and adjust grades meanwhile. Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 2:23
  • 18
    @ASimpleAlgorithm I disagree that “the instructor could easily make an argument”. They could try, but they couldn’t make the argument because such an argument has no merit; athletic performance has no connection whatsoever to microbiology. The behavior described in this question does not fall under the scope of academic freedom.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 5:26
  • 4
    For a subject such as microbiology that involves bench science, it seems inappropriate to grade only on knowledge; the grade should also account for their technical competence at bench science. Nothing to do with running, but also untrue to say "the students’ grade should depend on their knowledge of microbiology, and only on that"
    – 410 gone
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 7:50
  • 20
    @EnergyNumbers I would consider “bench competence” to be an aspect of “knowledge of microbiology”, so I stand by what I said. The bottom line is the grades should only consider things that are relevant to the topic of the course, and it sounds like we’re in agreement that lab skills meet that definition and running doesn’t.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 8:12

As an outsider this seems ridiculous. I think a quick email to the chair of the department saying that you have an advisee who is worried about BIO302 (or whatever the number is) and the running component. It seems reasonable to ask if that is actually a requirement (which it clearly is, but the department chair may not know it) and if it is, what course would be better suited for a student who is not interested in running. That should get the ball moving.

  • 58
    what course would be better suited for a student who is not interested in running. You can’t be serious. If you heard about a woman being discriminated against, would you ask what course was better suited for women? That’s a strange way of expressing concern about behavior that’s so very clearly unacceptable.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 22:51
  • 167
    I think Strong's point is that OP can bring this to the chair's attention by asking some very innocuous questions. If the chair's response is not sufficiently forceful, OP may then need to state their concerns more clearly.
    – cag51
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 23:33
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    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 8:10
  • Please add a warning that is - very ethical - approach could have severe drawbacks for OP's career.
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 16:14
  • @user111388 It seems to offer the administration a thread to pull if they don't know without coming off as a major personal crusade, do you think it is that hazardous?
    – user102072
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 0:54

The student's health status or physique is not of consideration here. If the situation is as the student described, the prof's behavior is simply untenable -- if for no other reason than 25% of contact hours being spent on nonsense. Every student in the class should be incensed. The TAs should be upset that they're spending their time this way.

The chair of the relevant department is the appropriate point of contact. When communicating with the Chair, include that you're passing the student's story along without verification, but you felt the story odd enough that you felt compelled to bring it to the Chair's attention.

  • 12
    While I might agree in general, there is more to an education than "lecture time".
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 20:47
  • 10
    @Buffy absolutely - it's the "nonsense" part that gets to me. Perhaps "contact time" is a better phrase here. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 20:56
  • 11
    I'd love to see which of his course outcomes he is using this as an assessment for. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 23:35
  • 18
    I think the profs goals will be amply explored, likely in the form of a question of the form "what were you thinking?" Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 23:39
  • 15
    Why say that "you're passing the student's story along without verification"? The OP did verify the student's account, by witnessing the situation personally. Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 1:36

I observed a similar situation. Oddly, the (male) professor was in biology. The course was some sort of nutrition course for nurses (so the class was mostly female.) Part of their grade was based on how much weight they lost during the course, so there were weekly weigh-ins.

Some of the students complained and some faculty intervened. Unfortunately, the prof was a buddy of the provost, so things happened quietly. In the end, he was not dismissed for this and even became dean but was eventually dismissed for sexual assault (he assaulted a secretary).

Anyway, yes, just tell the dean. This is absurd.

  • 3
    Moderator’s notice: If anybody wants to debate the edit history of this post or substantially have it edited again, please take it here.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 5:53
  • 7
    -1 it seems like your answer is you can complain but don't expect them to do anything, but don't worry about that because at some point they will do something even worse.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 15:15

I agree with the other answers that you should e-mail the department chair. Additionally, I would suggest that you advise the student that he has options to solve this himself even without your intervention. You are his advisor, so advise him, don't just try to solve it for him. E.g. your university may have an Ombudsman, suggest that he talk to them. The department/college/university may have a formal process that he could use to lodge a complaint or appeal the grade. Explain to him how this process works and send him the relevant information. Your university may have a student government or student association that lobbies/advocates for students' interests that may be able to take up his cause. And if all else fails, there is always "name and shame": a well placed headline in the student newspaper or local TV news station like "Prof flunks students for being fat" would gather a lot of interest (note: definitely use this option only if all others have failed)

  • 4
    My first thought was how is this professor doing on RateMyProfessor..? How about his end-of-term evaluations? Is this the first term he's tried this? I guess this student is a typical "good student" and doesn't have the normal bad student awareness the last date to drop/transfer? Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 13:19
  • I would disagree with having the student try to fix this as this is an issue that likely impacts every single student that the professor is currently teaching and that he has taught in the past. In fact they will likely have to review every single grade that has been given out in the past to check for cases where a student passed or failed solely due to the physical requirements.
    – Joe W
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 12:44

You are his adviser.

Don't cover this up, or let it go.

Advise your student to go get a doctor's note which states s/he needs a reasonable accommodation under the American Disabilities Act allowing the student any number of attempts to complete each mile, two hours to perform each mile (not the ~15 minutes provided), that s/he is not required to do it during the day (the professor or a grad student must be available in the evening or early morning when it is cooler).

You don't mention a location for this, but I see you have ties to the Eastern US... if the class is taught elsewhere let me know and I'll delete (though other countries may have similar laws).

If the instructor doesn't cave... that may be for the best, because the student has a pretty straightforward lawsuit that could fund his first four years of med school.
NOTE: I am not a lawyer (IANAL)

A comment stated this: (I've reordered the sentences)

The administration needs to be the one to stop this, not the students.

Yes, it would be better for the administration to fix it.

But remember that this is the same administration that put him in charge of the class (remember he's known to be quirky... which means they are already putting up with some amount of idiocy).

Making it more inconvenient for the professor to enforce his physical fitness requirement seems like an awfully roundabout way to end this nonsensical and inappropriate practice.

I see your point, however my suggestion has several benefits.

First, the OP doesn't interfere with another department.
In my opinion that may have long term negative consequences, even if OP has tenure.

Second, an ADA note means the professor has to let the student make up all past attempts. If the administration tell him to stop, he could just stop it from then on and give the student a grade he doesn't deserve based on uncompleted runs earlier in the course.
I know that sounds silly, but remember that the joker doing this is the same one that established a PE requirement for a microbiology class. I wouldn't put anything past him.

Third, this is a seven week course!
The student needs to stop the clock to prevent getting a B- (or whatever) assigned and then having to fight over a grade change (to where it should have been).

If I had a choice between waiting on an administration to do the right thing, or having that administration's lawyers make them do the right thing... I'd bet on the lawyers.

  • 4
    Making it more inconvenient for the professor to enforce his physical fitness requirement seems like an awfully roundabout way to end this nonsensical and inappropriate practice. The administration needs to be the one to stop this, not the students. Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 18:39
  • 4
    @NuclearWang Why not attack on multiple fronts?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 22:42
  • 2
    Totally agree with @jakebeal. While I'd strongly encourage the OP to contact both the dean and the department chair (either or both of which may well be on vacation at the moment..), it's also essential to give the student the legal means to stop this nonsense immediately. What the professor is doing is not only academically absurd, it's also completely illegal
    – user104070
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 18:36

As some answers have suggested, check the syllabus, if running or "minimum physical requirement" is not in there, your student wins.

On the moral side I can see some "intention" in there, although, don't get me wrong, this is completely denigrating, discriminative and can even be considered as bullying someone. If the professor has this "idea" of making sure that med students have some "decent health condition", he could make his "running exercises" as an extra, just to achieve some extra points by the end of lecture. This can NEVER be part of the program and being in bad shape cannot harm your marks, as he is not a physical exercise student, his job will have "nothing" to do with him being obese. And even if this last sentence can rise up some criticism, what is clear is that, al least, is has nothing to do with his knowledge on the subject or with his ability with it.

On the hypocrysy side, the professos itself is being one, as one answer suggested making EVERYONE run a mile without prior knowledge of their health condition is clearly faulty for someone that teaches future physicians. And, even with that, as you stated he has more than just medicine students on his class, what's the justification for those bio, pharma students also running? Funny enough I imagine he is too busy "counting" his students laps as to run himself... Which is, again, contradictory. Arbitraty rules can never determine the ability of someone to do something (is this professor able to keep concentration 2+ hours? Then is he capable of teaching that many students? As an example of another arbitrary rule)

Also, what if obesity (or any other health condition) is not because of bad habits and is related to some disorder?

Well, I think that morally there's a lot of "holes" in there. Legally also, but mainly the syllabus thing.

I would first speak to him, as after all, he is teaching at the same college as you, so as a form of "education" you should first go see him. After that, and after your conversation where you present your points, maybe a visit to the chair or dean is probably the right thing to do.

Good luck!!

  • 1
    "your student wins": ethically, yes. But in many universities, the professor is allmighty whatevery the syllabus says (if it exists).
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 16:16
  • Well, I disagree. If the syllabus says something and you report that to the chair of department, most of the time they will have to admit you were right. After all syllabus (or any "grade program") is what sets up the "rules" for the evaluation and the rating system. Of course we have to be aware that there's a lot of unfair situations on college and other alike systems (I agree with you on that), but that's something the OP can't control. I'm not a lawyer but I'm pretty sure a syllabus saying X can be "proof" for some process if the student chooses the legal path.
    – N00b
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 8:13
  • 1
    Proof that the prof isn't doing what they said they'd do in the syllabus is meaningless, since that is not illegal. And a syllabus is not a signed contract. I've never had the good fortune to attend any school where the administration would care at all what the syllabus said when it came to the choices of a tenured professor. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 21:20
  • Well, I guess it might depend. I don't think "good" (high rep probably would be a most accurate expression) universities would ignore a flagrant syllabus/evaluation doc violation. In fact, when I was at college I saw a professor being warned by the dean because of an argument over the syllabus. He wouldn't let us bring a formulae cheat sheet (chemical engineering subject) when it was explicitly written on the syllabus it was allowed. Part of my class went to see someone (I did not take part on that, so...) and 3 weeks later by the exam date the prof himself had prepared formulas for everyone.
    – N00b
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 6:32
  • Also there's a bit of difference between "not doing what they said they'd do" and "forcing someone to do something that was not pre-specified at enrollment time"
    – N00b
    Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 6:34

Please consult someone in your university you can trust (e.g. other professors you are friends with, worker's union, ombudsman).

From another question of you, I remember that you are not so high in the career ladder and other shady things happen in your department. Unfortunately, this could mean that "pissing off a more senior professor" could be very bad for your career.

Now, I do not say that you should not help the student because of your career. But please talk to competent people before who can tell you maybe about similar situations that happend before. Hopefully they can tell you how those situations turned out and what happened to the people in question. Then, you can make a more informed decision what to do. Maybe they tell you about some anonymous processes avaiable in your university.

  • Hence advising the student privately about how to use the ADA for self-defense might be the best immediate course of action..
    – user104070
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 18:39
  • @GeorgeM: Would you mind explaining ADA? Google's result do notseem to make much sense for me.
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 20:10
  • 1
    Oh sorry! It's the Americans with Disabilities Act, an important piece of US legislation adata.org
    – user104070
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 20:18

It would presumably be against the university's academic policies to award grades for non-academic activities. A professor cannot, on a whim, decide to award grades for components of a degree for activities such as finger-painting, beer pong, or karaoke performances. It brings the reputation of the department, not to mention the entire university, into disrepute. To make matters worse, this is a core subject, and worth 20% of the grade for this subject.

Even if a superior, for some highly dubious moralistic reasons, decided to approve this professor's conduct, presumably the administrators of the university would take a dim view of this behavior. If they don't, then there's something more serious wrong with the institution than the information than has been provided tells.

  • You are talking about what is right but not really giving advice.
    – user111388
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 17:16
  • @user111388 Not really. You have to know what the rules are in order to object to their execution (or breach). Just saying to a department head "I do not approve of this" has no particular weight. Even making an ethical argument is subject to... subjectivity. Pointing to the academic regulations governing such elements of a course is I think the way to go. As I said, I'd be surprised if such an nonacademic grade bearing component would not at the very least be in breach of the spirit of the academic charter, which presumably makes reference to study, examination, & fairness in these respects.
    – Stumbler
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 18:59

Having thought about this for a few days let me give an answer that is different from most of what is here.

My bottom line is that a professor can, carefully and thoughtfully, deviate from standard pedagogical practice. However, such deviations need to be justifiable in order to be acceptable. Even then, they may not be accepted. Moreover, the justification needs to exist, but doesn't need to be obvious to everyone.

I don't know, from the information given by the OP whether the professors actions are justifiable. I think that the topline question of the OP can be answered "yes", you should intervene in some way. But the proper way isn't to make accusations that that the actions are positively unjustifiable until you, or some authority knows more and explores whatever reasons the professor has for the actions. A TA isn't the person to make accusations against a professor, of course, just out of self preservation. But bringing it to the attention of 'higher authority' is certainly fine.

But let me note a couple of examples, one personal and the other not.

There is a method of teaching mathematics, the Moore Method, in which the professor studiously avoids teaching mathematics and forbids the students from reading about it in books and such. Nearly everything the student knows about math, beyond a few definitions, was developed by that student through a series of exercises, that I assume the student gets feedback on, but no prior instruction. The prof might give a sparse definition of the derivative, but no examples, and a lot of exercises. Robert Moore, turned out a number of very fine mathematicians and others, long after his death, still use this or a modification of it. It was, and remains, controversial. But it differs radically from standard pedagogy in mathematics.

My personal anecdote is that I once announced to my class, fairly early in the semester, that I was willing to fail everyone and stop holding lectures and they wouldn't need to come anymore and could just do other things. I could "get away" with this because I was tenured, respected, and a bit "zany". It caused quite a stir in the hallways after class. My department head asked about the reasoning, as was entirely appropriate. The issue was that the students had gotten to their current stage without any particular effort and had developed no good study habits. They would likely fail in the future if they didn't "learn how to learn" more effectively. I felt they needed shock therapy to get them to see the consequences. I actually spent a bit of time in future lectures guiding them to better study habits and actually forced note taking on them, with later reinforcement. But the pedagogy, while justifiable certainly wasn't standard, and I don't recommend it to anyone without deep thought first.

In the current situation, I think the proper approach, probably from a dean or such, is to ask that professor "Why do this?". What is the reason/justification. If that reason is inadequate then it is certainly time for condemnation and an intervention. It is probably, also, in the current case, necessary to examine the actually implementation, including accommodation for those unable to participate. But it should start with questions, not condemnation.

The rather strange (to say the least) pedagogy needs justification. But start with that.

  • So what do you recommend the OP? While you are correct, going to the dean could have severe consequences to the OP's career.
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 16:19
  • 1
    One can bring a question to the dean, without making a direct complaint, @user111388. In fact "A student has complained to me about the following situation..." would be a way to bring it out but without compromising yourself.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 16:21
  • Do you mean anonymously? Everything else seems quite risky (if not knowing the dean and their relationsship to the prof very well).
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 16:28
  • @user111388, that might be fine, if a complete background is included, but the OP is actually a professor so I think there is less risk. But he would have to judge that, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 17:03
  • From their other question, OP is new to the department, an adjunct and has no tenure. Their department seems to have shady things going on.
    – user111388
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 17:07

The professors job is not to judge the student based on his ability to run a mile, but to instead judge him based on his performance in the class. To me, this seems completely inappropriate. I Think you should voice your concerns with the department in question and to make them cease these activities. I Believe it is unethical.


This seems like a bizarre requirement, and if I was the student in question I would treat as any other course in which I had catastrophically poor performance for whatever unexpected reason: I would drop or withdraw, and then aim to retake it later in more favorable circumstances. This is the easiest solution for your student and has the highest odds of success. The only drawback is that he might have to delay his graduation by a year. Even that wouldn't be a complete loss: If he ends up having an extra year solely to take that course, he can use his free time to study for MCAT, get a medical-related job, work in a lab, or do some sort of internship that helps his med-school application.

The second possibility here is to negotiate with the instructor. For the record, I see his logic but I think the requirement is ridiculous and has nothing to do with microbiology (wouldn't the university lose accreditation of their microbiology course over stunts like this?). The med school requires microbiology because they want applicants to know microbiology. Imagine what they would think if they found out an applicant got a good grade not due to their knowledge of the subject matter, but because they could run a mile! Anyways, with that out of the way:

The instructor wants to promote healthy life habits in future doctors. Fair enough - but if the student is currently obese, it should be evident that he cannot become perfectly fit in a matter of 6 weeks. Even if he could lose weight that quickly, it would be a very unhealthy thing and maybe even grounds for hospitalization. Running when you are very overweight is also inadvisable, it creates excessive strain on the ankles and knees and heightened risk of injury. These points can be made to the instructor as part of plea to find an alternative "physical" activity for the student, such as swimming, with reasonable expectations given his weight. Perhaps the student could even volunteer to see a dietitian, start a diet, and show evidence of that (maybe a food diary) to the instructor as a way of getting the credit. The instructor gets to promote healthy habits in future physicians, the student gets his grade and maybe even improves his health, and everybody wins... Except that an inconsiderate instructor gets away with making inane requirements, which is the main drawback. The other drawback is that the instructor might demand evidence of weight loss, which isn't realistic in the first few weeks of any diet, but perhaps a note from the dietitian would be helpful there.

The third option would be to leverage existing legal protections of disabilities. Obesity is not always considered a disability, but sometimes is. In this case it clearly precludes the student from running. Surely there is a separate unit in the university that handles cases of discrimination. The student can appeal there directly and ask for accommodations to be made in the course. Just as how, say, a vision-impaired student would be provided alternate ways of reading materials, the obese student should be provided with alternate ways of showing "physical involvement". Perhaps they might even require him to be exempted from the running entirely, or demand that the running be abolished altogether. If for some reason they decide to be unsympathetic, the student can see an outside doctor to get himself officially declared a disabled person. In that event the university would have no choice but to accommodate him, and if they fail, he has a slam dunk ADA lawsuit* ahead of him, after which he would almost certainly receive a hefty payout and it would also look good on his medical application (he would be fighting for the rights of all disabled people, not just his own).

I doubt that approaching the chair or other academic superior will work. Of course it's worth a try. But it sounds like this guy is very confident and it's probably because he is well connected with the university leadership. Because this is not the first time you have complained about outrageous special treatment for athletes in your university, I suspect that the leadership is aware of this bizarre "physical microbiology", and endorses it.

*: I am assuming here that this is a US university, because your profile says United States, and also because in most other countries med-school is post-secondary, not post-bac. I think most countries have made discriminating against disabled persons a crime, though.

  • 1
    I may add that it's important that you better warn your student that to be a physician you better be fit, even if putting sports in an evaluation for microbiolgy seems foolish. For example, in France, you're required to do internship in emergency services while studying medecine and your student would do better in a similar with extra-mobility and better fit condition
    – Cailloumax
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 8:19
  • 12
    I strongly disagree. Asking the student to delay their graduation by a year because a required course is being taught with an absurd unrelated requirement replacing some of the course material is a significant burden and expense.
    – arp
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 13:24
  • 1
    Besides the risk to accreditation, there is the risk of a journalist learning of it and writing an article which overflows into a public flame war on social media.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 15:48
  • I now larned ADa, but what is MCAT?
    – user111388
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 7:18

It's eccentric but I don't think it's appropriate for you to stir up trouble based on your differing opinion. This professor thinks it is important, and university teaching is degraded every time political busybodies assert power to themselves to tell other professors how to teach. The result would be bland, boring classes where the instructor merely reads from the slide decks provided by the textbook publisher. Incompetence in the instructor, tardiness, unexplained absences, etc, are reasons for administration to step in, but eccentric opinions about the formation of graduates is not a valid reason.

I object to the answer that says "If the class is about microbiology, the students’ grade should depend on their knowledge of microbiology, and only on that." Students who want to learn only the facts can do so by buying a book or downloading an online course. You pay lots of money to go to a university to get something more than the facts. Some part of that is to engage with the opinions and experience of the professors, and some part of it is being made to go through a difficult set of tasks to obtain a degree that proves you've made the effort and demonstrated the necessary perseverance to earn it. In short, the students have signed up for this!

  • 2
    +1. I would add that OP does not have the biology professor's account of the course requirement, which could very well include something reasonable like an opt-out clause for students that can't or won't do this. I would encourage OP to make the bio professor aware of his advisee's concerns, and if there is an unreasonable response to take the top answer's suggestion to escalate. Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 13:12
  • 4
    It's not just an opinion, it's a legal issue. Adding requirements based on physical ability, without any prior warning, is just not legal. Or ethical, but that's another issue, as is the one about cheating the running students out of major amounts of class time
    – user104070
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 18:40
  • 1
    Are you answering as an attorney? As an educated layman, I doubt that it's illegal. Your definition of the issue is perhaps in error: it sounds like the requirement is not about measuring students' physical ability, but rather about requiring a task to be performed, so I don't see it as unethical. Unorthodox, certainly, but if you ask the authorities to stomp on any other professor with an unorthodox teaching idea, don't be afraid if your colleagues (or students themselves) use the same administrators as a weapon against your own teaching or grading methods in the future.
    – workerjoe
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 12:28

I actually agree with this. You shouldn't work in a health field if you can't be a good representative of good health. If he can't do it, out with him.

  • 26
    Downvoted. It's not the place of this professor to suddenly and arbitrarily enforce this idea, and may break all kinds of academic regulations. It's one thing to enroll in a program that requires a certain level of physical fitness, (it's not unheard of to find degrees that require PE classes) and quite another thing to show up for a standard classroom subject and unexpectedly find a bizarre physical component.
    – arp
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 13:27
  • 16
    It's not clear to me what work in a health field even has to do with the requirements of a microbiology course. If being a good representative of health is a requirement for working in the field, let the relevant portions of the education and hiring deal with that. It's not clear to me why you think it's appropriate that a students grade in microbiology is tied into physical fitness.
    – JMac
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 14:33
  • 8
    @JMac is spot-on. If physical fitness is truly a required outcome of the pre-med curriculum, then it should be reflected in the course requirements (i.e. a gym class requirement), not shoehorned into an unrelated class at an individual professor's whim. Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 18:36
  • 10
    If I had to choose between a fat skilled neurologist, and a gym instructor, for brain surgery, I know I would not hesitate. Immediately go for the gym Instructor - I don't want to be on this planet anymore.
    – Stumbler
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 21:28
  • 5
    Classifying microbiology as a health-related field is like classifying metallurgy as an auto-repair-related field.
    – chepner
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 15:56

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