Religious crazyness is not confined to the middle east

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Tech Sergeant
Nov 5, 2005
From the issue dated March 24, 2006

A College That's Strictly Different
Secretive Pensacola Christian controls student life with tough regulations and unwritten rules


Pensacola, Fla.

The campus looks just like the glossy brochure: clean, green, and beautiful. The students are well dressed and well groomed, not a pair of jeans or scrappy goatee in sight. Inside the Commons building, two students engage in a spirited game of Ping-Pong. When one of them misses an easy shot, he cries, "Praise the Lord!"

Pensacola Christian College prides itself on being different, not just from secular colleges, but from fellow Christian ones, too. Some of those differences, like the way students dress, are obvious to any visitor. Others are not. Since its founding, more than 30 years ago, Pensacola has blossomed from a tiny Bible college into a thriving institution of nearly 5,000 students. Along the way it has become known as among the most conservative — and most secretive — colleges in the country.

Not to mention one of the strictest. The rules at Pensacola govern every aspect of students' lives, including the books they read, the shoes they wear, the churches they attend, and the people they date. Many of those regulations are spelled out in a handbook sent to students after they enroll, but there are plenty of unwritten rules as well. Demerits are common and discipline swift.

It's all in the name of preserving Pensacola's "distinctives" — the word the college uses for what sets it apart. But many former students say the enforcement of the rules is often cruel and capricious. Dissent is never tolerated, they say, and expulsions for seemingly minor infractions are routine.

They also complain that Pensacola plays down (or never mentions) an important fact: It is not accredited. For many students, that lack of accreditation has not been a problem; for some, however, it has meant starting college over elsewhere or being rejected by employers.

In keeping with its distrust of outsiders, Pensacola's administration declined repeatedly to comment for this article. A spokesman says college officials "don't want to stir up a hornet's nest." But as interviews with dozens of current and former students make clear, the buzzing has already begun.

The Rule Book

Lisa Morris was walking to class with her boyfriend last October when something happened. At first Ms. Morris, a sophomore music major, is reluctant to divulge the details. Eventually, however, the truth comes out: He patted her behind.

Someone who witnessed the incident reported Ms. Morris and her boyfriend. At Pensacola any physical contact between members of the opposite sex is forbidden. (Members of the same sex may touch, although the college condemns homosexuality.) The forbidden contact includes shaking hands and definitely includes patting behinds. Both students were expelled.

Of Pensacola's many rules, those dealing with male-female relationships are the most talked about. There are restrictions on when and where men and women may speak to each other. Some elevators and stairwells may be used only by women; others may be used only by men. Socializing on particular benches is forbidden. If a man and a woman are walking to class, they may chat; if they stop en route, though, they may be in trouble. Generally men and women caught interacting in any "unchaperoned area" — which is most of the campus — could be subject to severe penalties.

Those rules extend beyond the campus. A man and a woman cannot go to an off-campus restaurant together without a chaperon (usually a faculty member). Even running into members of the opposite sex off campus can lead to punishment. One student told of how a group of men and a group of women from the college happened to meet at a McDonald's last spring. Both groups were returning from the beach (they had gone to separate beaches; men and women are not allowed to be at the beach together). The administration found out, and all 15 students were expelled.

Even couples who are not talking or touching can be reprimanded. Sabrina Poirier, a student at Pensacola who withdrew in 1997, was disciplined for what is known on the campus as "optical intercourse" — staring too intently into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex. This is also referred to as "making eye babies." While the rule does not appear in written form, most students interviewed for this article were familiar with the concept.

As she tells it, Ms. Poirier was not gazing lovingly at her boyfriend; he had something in his eye. But officials didn't buy her explanation, and she and her boyfriend were both "socialed," she says.

There are three levels of official punishment at Pensacola (four, if you count expulsion). Students can be "socialed," "campused," or "shadowed." Students who are socialed are not allowed to talk to members of the opposite sex for two weeks. Those who are campused may not leave the college grounds for two weeks or speak to other campused students.

Being shadowed is the worst of the three. Shadowed students are assigned to a "floor leader" for several days. A floor leader is a student who is paid by the college and has the power to issue demerits. Shadowed students must attend the floor leader's classes and sleep in the floor leader's room. During this time, the shadowed student is not allowed to talk to anyone but the floor leader. Shadowing is usually a prelude to expulsion.

Ms. Poirier was later told she would be shadowed after being spotted riding in a car in mixed company. She tried to explain that it was an innocent outing, but to no avail. When told she would be shadowed, Ms. Poirier decided to withdraw. "I said 'screw it' and I left," she says.

There are plenty of other ways to run afoul of the rules. Last spring Timothy Dow was caught playing the video game Halo 2. Such games are banned by the college. Movies are also forbidden, including those rated G. Music is restricted to classical or approved Christian ("contemporary Christian" artists are deemed too worldly). Students are allowed to watch television news at 6 o'clock, but that's it. The TVs are controlled by college employees, who flip a switch to black out the commercials, lest students see anything inappropriate.

In the library, books and magazines are censored. One student says she saw a pair of black-marker boxer shorts on a photograph of Michelangelo's David. Any books that students wish to read that are not in the library must first be approved by administrators. Those containing references to "magic," for instance, are normally rejected. The rule book specifically prohibits "fleshly magazines and books."

For playing the video game, Mr. Dow was campused. Later, in the cafeteria, he ran into a friend who had just been expelled. Mr. Dow had been told not to talk to his friend, who had previously been campused. But he figured it would be OK now that his friend was leaving. "I gave him a hug and said, 'See you later, man,'" he says.

Someone witnessed the exchange and turned Mr. Dow in. Students routinely turn each other in for violating rules and are rewarded by the administration for doing so. According to several former students, those who report classmates are more likely to become floor leaders.

Mr. Dow was called to the office of the dean of men, where, he says, he waited for about four hours. Then he was expelled.
In The Beginning

Pensacola Christian College is "an idea that came from God," according to its Web site. The college was founded in 1974 by Arlin Horton, who remains its president. It is Baptist but is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any similar organization. Both Mr. Horton and his wife, Rebekah, are graduates of Bob Jones University. While it appears that he copied his alma mater's demerit system and some of its rules, there is a longstanding rift between the two institutions.

Several years ago, Pensacola publicly criticized Bob Jones University for using translations of the Bible other than the King James Version. (Pensacola's policy is that the King James is the only divinely inspired English translation.) A group of Bob Jones faculty members fired off a lengthy letter responding to the attack.

It is true that students at Bob Jones are permitted to consult other English translations of the Bible. In the letter, however, Bob Jones professors objected to the implication that the university was not faithful to the word of God. "PCC appears to be bent on claiming exclusive right to the higher ground of Fundamentalism — in lofty isolation, not only from BJU, but from virtually every other Fundamental Bible college and seminary," they wrote.

A representative of Bob Jones University declined to talk about the bad blood between the colleges.

When Pensacola opened its doors, it had one building and 100 students. Its mission was to offer an education "based on the Christian traditional approach in contrast to the humanistic, progressive systems of education." Since then, as it has grown to nearly 5,000 students, it has built a large, gated campus featuring an art-and-music center with a 140-seat recital hall and recording studio; a 137,000-square-foot sports center with a basketball court, ice-skating rink, 12-lane bowling alley, four-lane jogging track, miniature golf course, and racquetball courts. There is a cafeteria, an on-campus restaurant, and a 300,000-volume library.

The campus also has several computer labs and wireless Internet access, although there is a catch. In the mid-1990s, Pensacola had e-mail and limited Internet access, but it shut the services down after several students started an online newsletter criticizing the college. (Needless to say, the students who created the newsletter were expelled.) Internet access was not restored until last year, and it comes with significant restrictions. There are a few hundred approved Web sites; students must ask permission to visit any other site. Amazon and eBay, for instance, are reportedly not on the approved list. Several students say they leave the campus to surf the Web.

Pensacola's success can be chalked up in part to its reputation. It is known as perhaps the strictest Christian college in the country, one that has criticized Bob Jones, of all places, for being too liberal. For those searching for a college that is more-Christian-than-thou, Pensacola is it. It has found a marketing niche.

But that is not the only reason for its growth. Along with the college, Mr. Horton founded A Beka Books, acknowledged as the largest Christian-textbook company in the world. A Beka sells textbooks to more than 10,000 Christian schools across the country, offering a complete curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade. It has also won a big share of the lucrative home-school market.

The company brings in about $70-million in annual revenue and is valued at $280-million, according to Dun Bradstreet. A sizable chunk of that revenue goes to support the college, which does not come close to breaking even on its own. According to its 2003 tax filing, the university collected $20-million in tuition and fees and $3-million from contributions. The filing attributes $15-million in income to "royalties," presumably from A Beka.

In the mid-90s, A Beka paid nearly $50-million in back taxes after the Internal Revenue Service ruled that it should have been classified as a for-profit entity. The college itself remains nonprofit.

Revenue from A Beka helps keep costs extremely low. Students pay $6,000 a year for tuition, room, and board. That's about a third or a quarter of what most other Christian colleges cost. When asked what other colleges they considered, Pensacola students often mention Bob Jones, Cedarville University, Northland Baptist Bible College, and Abilene Christian University. Cost is usually cited as the deciding factor.

Just as the textbook company helps support the college, the college helps support the textbook company. Many of Pensacola's students work for A Beka, operating binding equipment, packing books into boxes, loading those boxes onto forklifts. Some students complain about the working conditions; others say it's a good deal. For women, A Beka is usually the only employment option because they are not allowed to hold off-campus jobs. Or leave the campus alone, for that matter.

In the world of Christian colleges, Pensacola is an oddity. It is not a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. It has little to do with other institutions. Several administrators at other Christian colleges declined to discuss Pensacola on the record for fear of seeming critical. One said he did not know enough to speak knowledgeably because Pensacola keeps mostly to itself.

While not wanting to criticize Pensacola, Carl A. Ruby, vice president for student life at Cedarville, in Ohio, emphasizes that his university doesn't take the "bad-kid approach" to discipline. "On major issues of Christian doctrine, we are probably always on the same page," he writes in an e-mail message. "In terms of living out our faith on a daily basis, significant differences emerge."

Too Much? Or Just Right?

So Pensacola is strict. Sometimes very strict.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Not really, according to Isaac Blakely. "You get tired of some of the rules, but all in all the rules are not that hard to deal with if you have the right attitude about it," he says.

Mr. Blakely, a senior commercial-art major, had a friend who was socialed for "sitting too close to a girl." One semester Mr. Blakely himself came perilously close to getting kicked out by racking up 118 demerits. (A total of 150 means automatic expulsion.) The demerits were for small offenses, like forgetting to empty his dorm-room trash can or failing to properly clean the sink. Rooms are inspected regularly, and students who do not meet cleanliness standards are given demerits.

Even so, Mr. Blakely is loath to complain. "If PCC didn't put restrictions on us, I would wonder about their standards," he says. "I'm glad they're doing it."

Mena Ghobrial doesn't mind the rules, either. "At first I thought it was too strict, but it helps me concentrate on my studies," says the senior pre-med major. Mr. Ghobrial, who is from Egypt, thinks that some of the restrictions, such as making students sign out when they leave the campus and write down where they are going, help keep them safe.

Others are less enthusiastic about Pensacola's approach. Lisa Daxer transferred to Cedarville from Pensacola. Like other conservative Christian colleges, Cedarville has its share of rules. For instance, students may not drink alcohol on or off the campus, even if they are over 21. They are also forbidden to listen to music that comes with a parental-advisory sticker. Most forms of dancing are banned (ballet is OK).

That's fine with Ms. Daxer, who has no desire to attend a more permissive secular college.
Her problems with Pensacola go beyond the rules. Administrators there equate loyalty to the college with obedience to God in a way she finds objectionable. "They used to say that being at PCC is God's will for our lives," she says. "So walking out of PCC would be breaking God's will for our lives. Then I've heard them say that you might end up dying because God can't use you anymore."

Darrell Dow has heard much the same thing. "There is this idea that if you go against us, you're going against God," he says. Mr. Dow graduated from Pensacola in 2003 with a degree in computer science, but by then he already felt disillusioned. (Timothy Dow, who was kicked out for hugging a recently expelled friend, is Darrell Dow's cousin.) He says because rules can be "made up on the spot," it seems impossible to abide by all of them. "There's a feeling of helplessness and a spirit of fear," he says. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's a very 1984 feel to the place."

Matthew Arnold agrees. He graduated from Pensacola in 1998 with a degree in commercial art and graphic design; his younger sister attends the college "going against all the advice I ever gave," he says. Mr. Arnold is active in an online forum for former students, where many complain about the college and trade their best, or worst, stories. Some even call themselves "survivors" of the institution. Others, though, temper their criticism with fond regard.

Mr. Arnold argues that because the college claims that its authority comes directly from God, students who feel mistreated are put in an extremely awkward position. There is another, more practical fear as well, he says: Getting kicked out might mean starting over because other colleges might not accept unaccredited Pensacola's credits. "You live in terror of losing all the money you've put into the college," he says.

When Adam Peters enrolled at Pensacola, he believed that "the Lord wanted me to go there." But last fall he accumulated 111 demerits and was asked to sit out for a semester. Mr. Peters, a junior majoring in Bible studies, says he has started "to see a lot of the weaknesses" in Pensacola's system. "I can't shut my eyes to those, even though there are strengths," he says.

From his perspective, there are indeed strengths. Christianity is woven throughout the curriculum. Creationism is taught in science courses. Classes begin with a prayer. Along with mandatory chapel services, students must attend the campus church three times every week; they are not allowed to go to another church unless they are from the Pensacola area, and even then they need special permission. Mandatory small-group prayer meetings are held in the evenings.

A strong Christian emphasis is part of what Mr. Peters wanted in a college. But he has become disturbed by how Pensacola exerts its considerable power over students' lives. He is also bothered by how many of his friends have left the college. "One day they're there, and the next it's like, 'Where's Samantha? Oh, she got kicked out,'" he says. "They won't spell things out, and then they'll yank you. There's not always a lot of mercy there."

Insurmountable Problems
Several previously unaccredited Christian colleges, like Bob Jones, have recently become candidates for accreditation. Pensacola, however, has shown no interest in outside approval of any kind. Nor does it advertise its unaccredited status. A search of the Web site turns up no mention of accreditation. It is not mentioned in the college's viewbook either, which dedicates four pages to sports activities and two to campus facilities.

It is mentioned, in small print, on the inside flap of the course catalog: "Pensacola Christian College has never made application for regional accreditation as the College believes it would jeopardize the College's philosophical distinctives." The catalog goes on to say that getting other colleges to accept Pensacola's credits "has seldom been an insurmountable problem."

It was an insurmountable problem for Abel Harding. Near the end of his junior year, Mr. Harding placed a sign on his dorm-room door that said, "Welcome to the Party Room." He glued cutouts from a magazine, including a beer bottle, to the poster. It was meant as a joke, he says, because the very idea that he would have beer in his room was laughable.

The administration didn't see it that way. Mr. Harding was shadowed for three days.

That was one of several run-ins he had with the administration. All students join a "collegian," Pensacola's version of the Greek system. Mr. Harding's collegian was nicknamed "the Scorpions" and one member got a tattoo of a scorpion to demonstrate his loyalty. Tattoos are not allowed, and the student was campused. In protest Mr. Harding and his fellow collegians wore all black to chapel one day. They were forced to leave the service and told they would be expelled if they wore black to chapel again.

The shadowing, however, was the tipping point. Even though the administration told Mr. Harding that he could return for his senior year, he decided to withdraw.

"I just couldn't deal with it anymore," he says.

He applied to the University of Florida and was told that none of his credits would transfer. "I had to start over," he says. So, after three years at Pensacola, he enrolled as a freshman at nearby Santa Fe Community College and later transferred to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, from which he eventually graduated.

He says he called Pensacola for help, and offi-cials there provided none: "There's no label that says, 'We're not accredited.' How many 18-year-olds know enough to ask that?"

When he was a student, Mr. Harding traveled with a singing group that promoted Pensacola. When prospective students asked about accreditation, Mr. Harding says the singers were instructed to tell them that Harvard and Yale are not accredited, either, and so accreditation doesn't matter. (Harvard and Yale, for the record, are accredited.)

Lack of accreditation has been a problem for Amy Brown, too. She graduated from Pensacola in 2003 with a degree in early-childhood education. But because the college is not accredited, she cannot teach in public schools, she says. She had no idea what accreditation was before enrolling at Pensacola. "I never tried to transfer," she writes in an e-mail message, "because I had friends that did and ended up with all of their credits as electives," meaning that they had to retake required courses.

Mr. Ghobrial, the student from Egypt who doesn't mind the rules, wants to attend dental school. His first choice, West Virginia University, has already said it would not consider his application, because Pensacola is not accredited. "I'm hoping they change their minds," he says.

Many Christian colleges do accept Pensacola's credits, as do some secular institutions. Several former students say they have had no difficulty transferring credits or applying for jobs. But others have. And as more states crack down on degrees from unaccredited colleges, it may get even tougher for Pensacola graduates.

Donald Barber asked about accreditation before he enrolled. The first time he asked, he says, a college representative evaded the question. Then the representative said it wasn't important. "I had to ask three more times before he said no."

Mr. Barber left the college in 2004 after "butting heads" with administrators over an event he was planning. He wanted to invite a speaker from Bob Jones to an off-campus Christian-revival meeting. Pensacola officials told him he could not. "I was appalled by that," Mr. Barber says.

He did not object to the college's many rules. But he did mind that Pensacola's leaders would not tolerate dissent of any kind. "I felt like it stifled my personality," he says.

Students interviewed for this article were asked whether they would recommend the college. Some, even a few who had strong criticisms of the college, said they would. Others said absolutely not. Matthew Arnold, whose sister enrolled in Pensacola against his advice, argues that it depends a lot on the student. "If God told them to go, then there's not a lot you can do about it," he says.

But, he adds, they should know what they're getting into.

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: Students
Volume 52, Issue 29, Page A40
That place is just plain spooky. I would never subject myself to those stupid rules. That is just plain bullshit! Simple as it.

It does go to show that some people use Religion for the wrong purposes and for there gain.
That place is just plain spooky. I would never subject myself to those stupid rules. That is just plain bullshit! Simple as it.

It does go to show that some people use Religion for the wrong purposes and for there gain.

Totally agree, someone is getting very rich off those people.
The thing some are missing is that is EXACTLY how some want their children raised and brought up through school. If one person doesn't want it - that's fine. It's a private school, and you have the option to not send your children there. Just having left P'cola, those types of schools are big there. To each his own...
They call themselves a christian college. I find this hard to believe. This is the type of thing Jesus preached against. The holier than though mentality. You can't force someone to be perfect. It's literally impossible. Fear does not equal faith. You have to choose to be a christian not feel obligated and fear punishment from every direction.

I agree that the student made his/her choice. But, the college isn't even hinting that there's a bad side to it. When there is, It's not accredited, and when asked they say they don't need the worlds approval. Tell that to the kids before they enter the college than without avoiding their questions. They even claim that God told them this is what he wanted them to do. Maybe so. God wants us to hold accountable for our actions. OK. I agree. EXPELLING A KID FOR LOOKING INTENTLY INTO HER BOYFRIENDS EYES IS NOT WHAT HE HAD IN MIND! TRUST ME! Where else are they going to look? If they did it would be sexual harassment. Hey honey hold on I just want to star intently into you knee. Why not just put a ban on falling in love all together? Why not put a ban on everything? Oh wait, they did.

These are adults not children, this is a college not a daycare center. They are grown up enough to make their own decisions. Oh, by the way this is coming from a future Youth Pastor so don't say I'm not a christian.
The world is not perfect and neither are you.

OK, rant over.
Again - private institution, they can set their rules accordingly, as long as they don't violate law. It goes for all private schools. Parents can opt to send their children to those schools. Older teenagers and adults, such as with this college, can go to this or another school. I don't agree with that type of environment(I agree w/ you Chief and it's not what we Catholics believe either) - but I honestly can't say I believe that article 100% either. Too bad I'm not still in P'cola, I'd look it up for real... I'm moving back their in a couple months, so maybe I'll check out the school then.
They should at least answer the question, "is Pensacola Accredited"? They may have they're rights to make their own rules. However, they need to address what those rules are and not hide anything so the potential student can decide whether it's worth the aggravation to go to this school or not.
I can't help, but criticize them.
They should at least answer the question, "is Pensacola Accredited"? They may have they're rights to make their own rules. However, they need to address what those rules are and not hide anything so the potential student can decide whether it's worth the aggravation to go to this school or not.
I can't help, but criticize them.

That's why I said that I wish I was still in p'cola. I can't imagine that the situation is as bad as that article makes the school out to be. Seems rather over the top, and quite ridiculous.
The thing some are missing is that is EXACTLY how some want their children raised and brought up through school. If one person doesn't want it - that's fine. It's a private school, and you have the option to not send your children there. Just having left P'cola, those types of schools are big there. To each his own...

I would never want my children to go to a school like that. I think it is degrading to them.
well guys when my dad hit college right before the War he attended Bob Jones.

talk about total weirdness, he has some stories on their strict and rude behavior to their students .......... so the Pensacola school isn't alone in their bad attitude toward one another
I would never want my children to go to a school like that. I think it is degrading to them.

I wouldn't send my children to a school like that either. But, I do want to send the kids to Catholic school, and well some people look upon Catholic school negatively as well.
My children can go to whatever school they wish (as long as it is not the same kind of school as Pensicola). I dont want my children to think that they have devote there life to religion.

Religion is not a bad thing, but I want my children to make the choice.
I agree...If they decide at some point to become religious fair enough, but I dont think it should be drilled into them from early ages and make them think they have to.
Exactly. Fortunatly my wife is with the same understanding as I am. She wants our Children to make those kind of decisions. She is catholic as well.

I think that's an interesting approach. It makes sense for an adult - but are you not going to expose your child to religion growing up, allowing them to make that decision when they are old enough? Maybe I'm misunderstanding you.

We'll raise our kids to be devout Catholics - if when they're older they make their own decision, then there's nothing I can do about it. But, while I'm raising them - they'll be raised as such.

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