When Brandy Allen left for college in the fall of 1996, she said good-bye to a small, dusty town in California's central valley and a public high school where she felt conspicuous for her firm religious beliefs. But at Biola University, a nondenominational evangelical Christian school in suburban Los Angeles County, she encountered something many college freshmen assume they've left behind: rules. Lots of them.

Codes of conduct are standard at Christian colleges, and Biola's is one of the toughest. The university's 2,100 undergraduates can't drink, smoke, gamble, or have premarital sex. Doors must be wide open during the brief, and heavily supervised, hours when men and women may visit each other's dorms. "Social dancing," everything from the waltz to the salsa, is forbidden on campus. Students can't watch racy movies or TV shows, and parental-control software keeps internet pornography off limits to curious eyes.

This is college?

Allen, who graduated in May after four years towing the line, said she wasn't fazed by the strict requirements. Not all Christian college students agree. Behind their squeaky-clean image, Christian campuses are a place where students often struggle with the rules, question them and--more and more, according to some administrators--break them.

In recent years, many Christian colleges have relaxed certain rules in response to student demands, often regarding the right to dance on or off campus. Other rules have been tightened in response to new temptations.

Disciplinary problems, usually involving drinking, arise weekly at Abilene Christian University in Texas, said Wayne Barnard, dean of campus life at the 4,700-student school, where alcohol is not permitted on campus. Students are also forbidden to attend local "honky tonk" bars, and school officials recently made a decision to discipline students who serve alcohol at private parties off campus, Barnard said. "We're talking about the kind that spill into the backyard, and you've got 50 to 100 people."

Such parties are infrequent, he said, but in his 10 years on campus he has seen student behavior steadily worsen.

"I would say students are much more comfortable to misbehave, even in classes," Barnard said. Students are "at times obnoxious, pretty bold. We have a chapel time every day, you're talking about 3,000 people, and we've noticed that the noise level, the lack of respect has increased."

Yet enrollment at Christian colleges has surged in the past decade, and Abilene is no exception. Barnard's analysis is that students are growing up without guidelines, and they--or their parents--are "crying out" for rules that will prepare them for life after college.

"Our role and our goal is to help students develop and be responsible Christian leaders in the world," he said. "Anywhere you go, even large corporations, there are certain guidelines you have to follow. Sometimes it's dress codes; sometimes it's conduct. I think it's important for students to learn that there has to be a certain level of guideline."

Consequences of breaking the rules, or even challenging them openly, vary widely among Christian schools. Just as no two denominations interpret Scripture in the same way, no two colleges set the same standards for Christian community life. And while evangelical Protestants adhere to a literal reading of the Bible, school officials acknowledge that many of their prohibitions have no direct scriptural source. Smoking, dancing, and moderate drinking, for example, are not forbidden by Christian Scripture.

"There's a huge spectrum of behavioral codes," says Julie Peterson, spokeswoman for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. More than 177,000 students attended its 95 member schools last year, Peterson said, a jump of more than 24% since 1990.

At one end of the council's spectrum stands Biola, where all students must be born-again Christians (a pastor's letter must be included with the application), and everyone from the janitorial staff to the chairman of the trustee board must follow the same code of conduct as the students.

Nyack College, near New York City, affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, also expects its students to be Christian believers and sets similar standards regarding alcohol, smoking, and sex. Its community- standards document also includes a detailed list of other forbidden fruit: MTV, VH-1, soap operas, and computer games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

Do the codes work? Phil Dehaan, spokesman for Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., isn't so sure.

"Anecdotally, I've talked to colleagues at Christian colleges that have codes, and they know that students are going to bars on weekends, going to dances," Dehaan says. "Having a code doesn't mean that that sort of thing is not going to happen."

Calvin, with its roots in the Reformed tradition, takes a more liberal approach. Students may smoke and dance on campus, and students over 21 may drink alcohol off campus. Dorm visitation policies are also looser: Students may close their doors while visiting someone of the opposite sex, as long as the deadbolt is open and the door doesn't latch.

Sarah Potter, a Calvin senior who attended a Church of the Nazarene growing up in Plainfield, Ill., said some of the school rules, particularly permitting dancing, shocked her congregation back home.

"My church was kind of upset I was going to Calvin," said Potter, who is working toward a career in Christian communications. "I think they're surprised that I turned out OK."

Still, life at Calvin is no free-for-all. An empty beer bottle in a dorm room, even if it's simply holding a candle, would be a violation of the no-alcohol policy. Sex during visiting hours, or any time before marriage, is strictly taboo.

Enforcement policies vary widely across campuses. Many colleges rely on a network of student resident advisers and staff resident directors to keep an eye out for violations. At Abilene Christian University, breathalyzers are kept in the dormitories, and students smelling of alcohol are required to submit to a test.

Sometimes, a guilty conscience is the best enforcement. Two weeks before graduation this spring, the Biola dean of students, Michael Trigg, received a confessional message from a senior studying abroad.

"He e-mailed me the fact that he was consuming, lightly, alcoholic beverages," Trigg said. "We just had a good formative talk today," and the student will graduate on schedule. "Discipline varies tremendously, all the way from simply a good talk to some extreme examples of suspension. It often involves counseling; it sometimes involves therapy."

At Abilene, where students caught with dirty magazines must write an essay and complete a formal anti-pornography program, a "second chance scholarship," set up by a former trustee, enables students kicked out for code violations to reapply. About eight to 12 students are dismissed yearly, and 90% return and graduate, Barnard said.

How seriously do students take these codes? Administrators at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., are asking themselves that question now, said Tim Wilson, associate dean of students. A Stanford University graduate, Wilson had to sign his alma mater's honor code during every exam. He wonders whether Westmont students would benefit from more frequent reminders of the importance of the school's conduct code.

Westmont, like many other Christian colleges, has modified its code in recent years. The school recently relaxed its dancing policy, allowing student groups to organize dances on campus. Biola no longer forbids dancing off campus, a move that shocked some alumni, Trigg said, and is now considering allowing cable television in the dormitory common room. Certain channels would be off-limits, he added.

Even students who respect the codes sometimes find them hard to swallow. Some students at Westmont complained to the local newspaper last year when the college added screening software to its campus computer system.

Tom Penna of Clarksville, Tenn., a senior at Eastern College, an American Baptist school in St. David's, Penn., appreciates that Eastern takes a more trusting approach. The school policy forbids viewing obscenity on the internet, but it doesn't resort to censorship. He is less rosy about dorm visitation rules, which he found "sometimes refreshing, sometimes reprehensible."

Although as a resident adviser his job was to enforce the rules: "I developed really good relationships, friendships, with girls, where it would feel appropriate to have the door closed" at times, he said. "It's a small campus, and it's hard to find a place to have a quiet conversation."

Michael Blunk, a sophomore at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., was dismayed last year when the student government voted against allowing a new student group to discuss homosexuality on campus. Gordon's code, like that of most Christian colleges, forbids homosexual practice.

Although Barry Loy, the dean of students, said the group wouldn't have violated Gordon's policy, students felt the group needed faculty supervision. Blunk, 22, isn't so sure.

He also wonders whether students living under such codes will be equipped to make their own choices later on.

"A lot of people think these rules are moral law, and they're not," Blunk said. "You're going to graduate from Gordon, and you have to make the rules on your own. You have to decide if you are going to drink or smoke or fornicate, and Gordon's not going to be there to help you."

Brandy Allen, now 22, said following Biola's strict rules has not been a problem. "I've always been a firm believer in being submissive to the law of the land. I'm pretty compliant in my personality. I don't know how much is my faith and how much is I don't take the energy to fight things."

Still, she finds herself asking questions. A number of Biola students wish faculty and staff and even graduate students would be permitted to drink if they choose, Allen said, adding she has talked to faculty members who would enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a champagne toast on New Year's Eve. As she prepares to attend Biola's graduate school of theology in the fall, she wonders if students would benefit from role models for moderation.

"We've gotten into a pattern of life, and I wonder if the grad students are prepared," she said. "We'll see how I'll feel. That's the age where you're usually given that freedom, and we're locked up for another few years. I just wonder what happens to them when they leave."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad