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Sunday, November 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
SPU keeps its ban on drinking, fostering a debate
By Stuart Eskenazi
Seattle Pacific University students last spring voted for relaxing the school's alcohol ban to allow undergraduates 21 and over to drink off campus.
From the outside, that may seem like a tweak, but those familiar with the evangelical Christian school know otherwise.
The prohibition, one of several standards of conduct to which undergrads consent before ever taking a class, has helped define the institution since its founding more than a century ago.
Some students expected the referendum, which passed by a 4-1 ratio, to result in a softening of the policy. Instead, it led only to explanations. In a series of well-attended campus forums this fall, SPU administrators and faculty members shared the religious and historical justifications behind the alcohol ban as well as other lifestyle expectations that apply to the school's approximately 3,000 undergraduates.
Within the red-brick embrace of the Queen Anne Hill campus, an environment in which some students complain of being sheltered from the outside world, the discourse has inspired self-reflection as administrators and students grapple with the nuances and interpretations of Christian values.
SPU's student newspaper, The Falcon, has published several letters and editorials by students debating whether the alcohol policy enhances or undermines their Christian identity. Students favoring a policy change say the alcohol ban promotes an insular and detached environment at SPU, a paradox to the university's mission to engage others and better the world. Administrators say that although the alcohol-abstention policy has weaknesses, the reasons behind it are worthy of praise.
Michael Seguin, a 20-year-old sophomore from Lynnwood who wrote a column challenging SPU's lifestyle expectations, said if Christianity is to have value, it must have relevance to the outside world.
Philip Eaton, SPU president, said the intent of the alcohol ban is to promote a healthy lifestyle.
"The theological ground point for me is that God wants all of his children to flourish," he said, and overdrinking prevents flourishing.
But the SPU policy prohibits undergraduates from drinking alcohol altogether, and students have zeroed in on that.
"The alcohol policy has always been a hot-button issue on campus because ambiguity exists over whether drinking alcohol in moderation is wrong in a biblical sense," said Derek Ghan, a 22-year-old senior and Falcon editor in chief.
Moderation or abstinence
In softening its own alcohol ban last year, Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in Illinois, concluded that although the Bible requires moderation, it does not call for abstinence. Wheaton's revised policy allows faculty and staff members and graduate students to drink in moderation off campus, putting it in line with SPU's policy.
At Whitworth College, a Christian college in Spokane, undergraduates 21 and over are allowed to drink off campus. Kathy Storm, Whitworth's dean of students, said the policy reflects the college's emphasis on personal responsibility. During the two years Whitworth undergrads are required to live on campus, the school educates them about alcohol and immerses them in a culture that affirms healthy lifestyle choices, she said.
"Our hope is they will take the values with them when they leave here so when it comes time for them to make decisions on their own, those values inform their decisions," Storm said.
The SPU student referendum last spring, in which about 45 percent of undergraduates voted, prompted SPU's administration to put together the lifestyle forums. The one on alcohol attracted about 1,000 students, Eaton said.
"Students are deeply interested in the question of boundaries in their own lives," he said.
As part of the undergraduate application, students sign a covenant agreeing not to drink alcohol on or off campus, smoke, use drugs, cheat in school or have premarital sex. The expectations apply to all undergraduates, even those 21 and over.
While the university expects students to abide by the covenant, it does not aggressively police it, said Les Steele, vice president for academic affairs. Last year, 115 students were disciplined for violating the ban.
Steele said most violations are self-reported or reported by other students. Discipline varies but is designed to help students make better choices rather than to punish them.
SPU's Office of Student Life surveyed about 900 undergraduates last spring on a variety of health issues, including drinking habits. About 55 percent described themselves as nondrinkers, 36 percent as light drinkers, 9 percent as moderate and 1 percent as heavy.
"I'm not naive," Eaton said, expressing an understanding that some SPU undergraduates do drink. "Absolutely, I expect them to live within the standards we've set. But I'm realistic also."
Students also have emphasized that they perceive a double standard because faculty and staff members and graduate students are allowed to drink off campus.
"We understand the limitations of the policy and what they perceive as hypocrisies, and yet we work within it because we believe there is a greater good here," Eaton said.
Much of the thoughtful debate is taking place among students.
Seguin, who wrote the column in the Falcon, said the drinking ban is symptomatic of what he considers a troubling propensity among Christians to set themselves apart and stand in judgment of others.
"We've set up these lifestyle expectations as methods to define ourselves and to be different from everyone else," he said. "If we define ourselves as individuals or an institution by the things we don't do, then we're not defining ourselves at all."
Both he and Ghan, the Falcon editor, said the alcohol ban should be eased because it distracts students from focusing on more important Christian values.
"Students have hovered around this issue when we should be getting involved in the community in a proactive way," Ghan said.
Seguin added: "How are we as an institution going to interact with the world when the main question coming from students is: 'Why can't we drink?' "
Daniel Beaty, a 19-year-old sophomore from Salem, Ore., said SPU's lifestyle expectations appropriately distinguish the school and its students from the rest of the world.
"The Bible calls upon Christians to be separate and not conform," he said. "That doesn't mean we are condescending or condemning of others. To the contrary, we are taught to engage and be accepting of different people and different lifestyles even though we are not necessarily supposed to engage in those lifestyles ourselves."
Although some students consider SPU's alcohol ban dogmatic, Beaty said the lifestyle expectations prepare students for the sacrifices they will have to make as adults.
Stephen Bretz, a 21-year-old senior from California's San Joaquin Valley, questioned the logic of his peers who challenge a policy they agreed to follow when they enrolled.
"A lot of the arguments are coming from people who are uncomfortable because they personally have broken this agreement with SPU," said Bretz, who wrote an editorial in the Falcon to respond to Seguin. "They signed the covenant, and now they feel bad about breaking it."
He said SPU's commitment to service, not the lifestyle expectations, still defines the university.
"The guidelines don't detract or distract students from being involved in outside service activities," Bretz said. "If anything, they give us a clear mind and body to pursue such things."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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