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University of Chicago joins other schools in nixing swim requirements

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 9:43 a.m. CST

CHICAGO (MCT) — For almost 60 years, one of the first things new students had to prove at the University of Chicago was their ability to stay afloat.

But students in the Class of 2016 won’t have to pass a swim test or take a swimming course their freshman year. The University of Chicago has joined other universities in nixing the requirement.

A handful of universities still require swimming tests to graduate, a dramatic shift considering in 1977, 42 percent of colleges had some sort of swimming requirement, The Associated Press reported in 2006. By 1982 that figure had plummeted to 8 percent, and today, there are just a handful.

Three Ivy League colleges — Columbia and Cornell universities and Dartmouth College — still require their students to pass a swim test before graduation. So do the University of Notre Dame, Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College.

Before this school year, University of Chicago students had to be able to swim four widths of the pool totaling 100 yards using any stroke with no time limit. Students who failed had to take a one-credit swimming course, which didn’t count toward a degree but was required to graduate.

When asked about his 2003 experience with the university’s swim test, alumnus Hassan Ali, now 27, joked that he might have suppressed details because of the traumatic nature of the test.

“Entering college is intimidating enough, let alone getting half-naked in front of your peers and trying to prove your physical acumen,” Ali said.

In a 2007 article Ali wrote for the University of Chicago Magazine, he reported that three first-years needed a half-hour and assistance from lifeguards.

“The rules are, it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be done,” Ali said about the test. “However you do it — any means necessary, just do it.”

Tim Murphy, a former sports editor for The Chicago Maroon, the university’s student newspaper, took the test as a freshman in 2005.

“It was a huge, huge struggle for me,” Murphy said. “I took swimming lessons as a kid, but the pool just seemed so huge. I got in there and just started flailing.”

Murphy said he thinks learning to swim should be encouraged in the same way wearing a bike helmet is — but it shouldn’t be mandatory to graduate.

“It’s just sort of arbitrarily picking one requirement to focus on,” Murphy said. “It just seems really irrelevant.”

On Sept. 13 in a letter to students, Dean John Boyer and Vice President of Campus Life Karen Warren Coleman announced that they agree. In addition to no longer requiring the swim test, the university has removed its fitness test and a previously required three credits of physical education.

Warren Coleman said in an email that the “unusual” swimming and fitness requirements were implemented in the 1954-55 school year by the dean of students, rather than with a faculty process, which is normally how something like that would be done.

Jeremy Manier, a university spokesman, said the reason for the change was to give students options in how they choose to exercise. To facilitate that model, the Fit Chicago program — which used to cost students between $4 and $5 a class and includes Pilates, core training, yoga and Zumba — is now free.

Fred DeBruyn, aquatics director and assistant physical education director at Cornell, said the swim tests served a valuable purpose: preventing drowning.

“If we actually teach people how to swim and make it a life skill, that will in some ways break the cycle of having parents who have children who don’t know how to swim … and lessen the possibility of people drowning,” DeBruyn said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 10 people die each day from unintentional drowning. It also says that drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional death in the United States. At the same time, unintentional drowning deaths decreased from about 5,700 in 1986 to an average of 3,880 from 2005-2009.

Many U. of C. students agree with the change, including Yusef Al-Jarani, who is the student government’s vice president for student affairs. Al-Jarani, a sophomore studying global and international studies, said the swim test — which he took with ease last year — was outdated.

“There’s that fringe sect of universities that say it’s a valuable life skill, but then again, so is self-defense,” Al-Jarani said. “So I think it’s a smart decision to really leave it up to the students to decide when, if at all, they would like to take the time to learn that skill.”

Sam Coleman, 18, a wide receiver on the University of Chicago’s football team, agreed that the university shouldn’t pressure people to learn to swim.

He said he had heard about the swimming and fitness tests over the summer, but as an athlete wasn’t worried.

“Honestly, I didn’t think twice about it,” he said. “But I mean, I can understand how some people would worry about it.”

Although Warren Coleman did not know why the test was first implemented at U. of C., some schools, including Cornell, implemented swim test requirements in the early 1900s when soldiers who couldn’t swim were “dead weight to their units,” according to DeBruyn, who has also studied the history of the swim tests.

Four years ago, Cornell reviewed the swim test requirement and decided to keep it.

But for some, the swim test presents religious, physical and psychological obstacles.

Many Muslim students at the University of Chicago had received waivers for the test — offered in co-ed settings — because they believed it violated their religion’s central pillar of modesty. In 2004, students told the Chicago Tribune that the university’s new pool with glass walls made it impossible for them to remain modest. DeBruyn said Cornell offered tests for women-only to accommodate Muslim students. Students with water phobias and physical disabilities have also been given waivers for the tests at both universities.

The “diverse needs” of U. of C.’s campus is one of the reasons Warren Coleman cited for nixing the swim tests in a letter to students.

“Ending (these requirements) will give us more opportunities to provide desired athletic and fitness options and give students more flexibility in how and when they engage in fitness, recreation or athletic activities,” Warren Coleman said in an email response. “These changes will help us serve those students’ athletic interests more effectively.”

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