In the email that students received from our University Administration this afternoon they were notified that they would not be required to complete a wellness requirement in order to graduate but that "As part of this change, we encourage you to make a healthy and active lifestyle a priority."
I'm fairly sure that this is a sincere plea to students to continue to make good choices about their personal wellness; however, the question that wasn't asked by those that made this decision and drafted the email was how students would interpret this policy change. What does a student really hear in all of this? For most students I think the message they get is that health & wellness, at least during the college years, isn't all that important. After all, if it was, wouldn't BYU require it? And, what's with discontinuing the College of Health & Human Performance? Are those departments and courses not as important as Biology or Business Marketing? While many students will still take advantage of the elective courses offered by BYU, the students that needed the Wellness requirement most (those that wouldn't engage in exercise or healthy living on their own) will likely leave the university without ever being exposed to those faculty members, ideas, or activities.
The sad state of American's physical health aside, the larger issue here is that we need to think more carefully about how the policies we implement communicate our values to students (for a much more thoughtful and academic commentary on this idea see John Tagg's discussion of espoused theories and theories-in-use from Chapter 2 of his book The Learning Paradigm College). Some other poor examples:
- Notifying students that they have received institutional scholarships by referring them to their "My Financial Account" page where the scholarship amount appears, rather than sending a congratulatory letter.
- Teaching first-year courses in large lecture halls seating upwards of 800 students
- Encouraging students to bring as much AP or concurrent enrollment credit with them as possible as they move from high school to college.
I'm sure you could add to this list if you thought hard enough. Now, the good news. There are schools that have aligned their decisions and actions very closely with their core values and students are picking up on it. Although not universities, KIPP Schools are a great model for what I'm talking about here. Some examples:
- Introducing every new student by name on the first day, to the entire student body.
- "Stopping the School"--When someone violates a significant school rule, classes screech to a halt, and teachers and students hold a meeting to discuss what happened and how to fix it.
- College visits by 5th graders (local colleges) & 7th graders (prestigious east coast schools).