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CHICAGO (CBS) — For generations of University of Chicago college freshmen, the awkward experience of orientation week included lining up in swimwear with a mixed-gender group of strangers, waiting your turn to prove you could swim 100 yards continuously.
But a published report now says the swim test will soon be history, along with the physical fitness and endurance tests that led many students to end up with a gym requirement.
Crain’s Chicago Business reports U of C College Dean John Boyer sent a memo to undergraduates saying physical education requirements would no longer be mandatory.
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The tests were administered during orientation week. Those who did not pass the swim test were required to take a swimming class, while those who fell short on the fitness tests were required to take between one and three quarters of physical education classes depending on their performance.
Crain’s reports the requirement dates back to the 1954-55 school year, but now, the U of C has decided to “create a new model of physical education, athletics and recreation.”
The U of C will still offer some fitness classes to provide access to physical education, Crain’s reports. The university had required a nominal fee to participate in classes in the Fit Chicago program – including pilates, yoga, Zumba and cardio-kickboxing, but those classes will now be free, Crain’s reports.
“While many students take it in stride, the test raises anxieties for non-swimmers or those who fear embarrassing failure in front of their new peers. Some examinees emerge from the locker rooms visibly uncomfortable, biting their nails or lips,” the 2006 article says.
On top of that, before the Ratner Athletic Center was completed, first-years had to line up in the old Bartlett gym, taking a route that led the co-ed group through a restroom area that included a men’s urinal.
Former Chicago Maroon student newspaper sports editor Joe Katz was quoted in the magazine as calling the swim test “one of the last quirky traditions that separates us from the Berkeleys and Harvards of the academic world.” Notre Dame, Cornell, Dartmouth, Swarthmore and MIT are among the schools that still have swim tests.
And while waiting in line for the swim test, students might have exchanged a story or two about why the test was instituted in the first place. But the popular story is every bit as much an urban legend as the apocryphal “grade D beef” truck that has allegedly been spotted making deliveries to the Burton-Judson dining hall.
The legend claims that Ida Noyes Hall – home to the Max Palevsky Doc Films cinema, the Career and Placement Services office, and the private campus Pub – is named for a young woman who drowned in Lake Michigan as she attempted to swim in the frigid waters for a sorority initiation.
Following Noyes’ death, the legend goes, her father donated the money for Ida Noyes Hall, but only on the condition that all students pass a swimming test to graduate, and that no sorority would ever have its own house on campus.
But a 2004 edition of the U of C Magazine is quick to debunk the legend. Ida Noyes was actually the wife of inventor and industrialist LaVerne Noyes, and a member of many women’s clubs and artistic societies in Chicago in the late 19th century.
She actually died at the age of 59 in 1912, and her husband donated the money for Ida Noyes Hall as a women’s social center and gymnasium three years later.
And as to the part about sorority houses – there actually were no formal sororities at the U of C until Alpha Omicron Pi came to campus in 1985, the magazine points out.