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.
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.
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).