Draped over the ivied archway of Brown University's student union, the banner, red letters scrawled on a bed sheet, said, "We Are Scared! Vote Yes on Referendum No. 1."

Students at this 200-year-old university went to the polls today to vote on whether to ask the campus health services "to stockpile suicide pills for optional student use exclusively in the event of nuclear war."

More than 700 students signed petitions to place the issue on the ballot during student council elections today and Thursday.

Eric Widmer, dean of student life, told an emotional student audience Tuesday night, "This referendum, should it pass, will be binding on the university only over my dead body."

Robert Reichley, vice president for university relations, said that while Brown had no intention of stockpiling cyanide pills, "The university takes very seriously the concern that's motivated this issue."

A survey this summer, commissioned by Brown's Foreign Policy Center, found that 50 percent of Americans under age 30 believe that an all-out nuclear war will occur within a decade, Reichley said.

The referendum has put this normally peaceful campus into ferment. "College students have been silent about the arms race," said Jason Salzman, a junior from Denver who organized the referendum. "But it's our world that's going to be destroyed."

The intense Salzman, a physician's son, said he started his group, Students for Suicide Tablets, "to shock people into taking action. When you confront people with their own suicide, then they think about the suicidal nature of nuclear war."

Brown's student newspaper, the Daily Herald, editorialized today, "A strong yes vote on the suicide-pills referendum might rattle a lot of people's beliefs about college students. No, it would say, we are not just grade-grubbing pre-pro pre-yup resume packers. And yes, we do care about something beyond whether mommy will let us have the car this year."

At a panel discussion between faculty and students Tuesday night, several students wept and others expressed anger that the university was not doing more to halt the arms race.

Ginna Templeton, a junior from Macon, Ga., told the audience that the referendum was helping her to "face my nightmares" about nuclear war. "I can't even think about tomorrow when I think that nuclear war is going to happen," she added.

Julie Cafritz, a sophomore from Washington, D.C., said she thought the referendum was "a ridiculous but brilliant gimmick" at first, but now supports it as a way to "provoke people with something they find morally repulsive."

In the basement of Sayles Hall, where dozens of students lined up to vote, Marcia Mitchell, a senior from Palo Alto, Calif., said, "The whole thing seems rather ludicrous to me."

The university has had to cope with irate phone calls and letters from parents and alumni demanding to know what's going on. "Students have come and told us that since this has happened, they've been unable to sleep and have been haunted by thoughts of nuclear war," said Dr. Sumner Hoffman, director of Brown's health services.

Not all students, however, are taking the issue seriously. A letter in the Daily Herald from Chris Deauer, a senior, noted, "During all this talk of suicide tablets, I think we've lost sight of a very important question: Will the pills be buffered?"