Blurred Vision: The Ambiguity of SAU’s Drinking Policy
It happened back in November the same way Title IX’s controversy got rolling: with a small wording change.
On November 3, President Ellis addressed the SAU staff and faculty at the fall community meeting. Partway through the talk (28:50 on the video) Ellis said the next topic partly hearkened back to the request for Title IX exemptions.
When SAU requested exemptions, both of the lawyers consulted urged the school to keep the language of SAU’s Community Standards as in-line with the Free Methodist discipline as possible to ensure SAU’s foundation for religious-affiliated claims.
“We’ve had a change in Community Covenant language” said Ellis during the meeting. “Previously, the staff and faculty handbooks, as well as the board of trustee policy, had stated ‘The university community expects all its members to abstain from gambling, profanity, the illegal use of drugs, the use of tobacco and alcoholic beverages.’”
The Covenant for staff now reads, “The university advocates abstinence from gambling, profanity, the illegal use of drugs, the use of tobacco and alcoholic beverages.”
This new language is almost identical to the Free Methodist Book of Discipline, which says “Because Christ admonishes us to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves, we advocate abstaining from the use of alcoholic beverages.” (page 61, ¶3213)
In the community meeting, Ellis said this change was prompted by a “need” for correlation with the board of trustees and the Title IX exemption.
“We’ve had board members from more diverse backgrounds where abstinence is not something that is expected,” said Ellis.
Some potential board members were hesitant of joining because of the abstinence rule. There were also board members who ignored the policy.
Ellis said the issue was that SAU “became vulnerable to a question of inconsistency of how we would deal with board members, because it would never be addressed.”
“We found ourselves in a place where we knew we had board members not abiding by the expectations of the community standards, clearly articulated, and therefore, we were not treating faculty staff and students equitability,” said Ellis.
In the meeting, Ellis stressed that the policy for students would remain completely the same: no drinking. He then said for board members, the new wording allowed some leniency; if a board member wanted a glass of wine after dinner at home, they could exercise their personal freedom to do so.
However, he said, with faculty and staff things “get a bit more complicated.”
No one— board members, faculty, or staff—would be able to drink while acting under official capacity for SAU or while in the presence of students. Ellis said his ability would not change, he would not drink, as he lives on campus and is constantly representing SAU.
He also said a faculty member could not go to Slice of Spice and get a drink where they could be seen by students. Additionally, if a faculty member was in Traverse City and wearing an SAU sweatshirt, they should not drink because they are representing the SAU community.
Ellis said he had been asked by a faculty or staff member if they would be fired if someone saw them buying beer, and was offended. “No,” said Ellis, “but let’s think about this. If you’re a faculty member and you walk into Hutches and you buy a case of beer, what’s the likelihood of someone seeing the role you play? Let’s be wise about living out the freedom that you have in this.”
“Say we have a faculty member in California,” said Ellis, “they’re having a glass of wine with their dinner. His whole family knows they’re a professor at Spring Arbor. I’m going to put that upon the faculty member.”
“People have asked, and I’m not going to give a list of where you can and where you cannot…we as an institution advocate abstinence,” said Ellis.
When asked if this policy could be understood as a kind of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ in which the ability to drink was dependent on the physical proximity and visibility of your connection to the university. Ellis responded, “Our community has a certain view of what Spring Arbor is and what they aren’t, that’s what we’re going to present to the community.”
“We prefer that everyone abstain,” said Ellis. “We also understand that having a drink of alcohol isn’t a sin, isn’t a rebellion against God, it’s something that we say as a community can be destructive…we do not want it to have an impact on our community and if you want to make an individual choice, it’s your prerogative.”
When asked if he thought of-age students would ever have the ability to drink off-campus, Ellis answered, “Will there ever be a day? Maybe. It would be quite a while from now. And probably not during my tenure. Within certain communities, alcohol is a destructive presence…I don’t want it be a part of this community at all.”
Ellis has the unpleasant task of being both mediator and messenger of this small change with big repercussions. He said that if any faculty or staff had questions or wanted advice in regards to the policy, they can contact him.
By Alexandra Harper