Harrisburg, PA - The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and its Pennsylvania Chapter have grave concerns about Cairn University’s sudden dismantling of its social work program because of University President Todd Williams’ stance on the “social and cultural agenda” promoted by the social work profession, including LGBTQ+ inclusivity. We support the Cairn faculty, students, and alumni who were hurt by this decision.
This decision is the result of failed executive leadership at the University, and as such must be retracted immediately for the good of the institution and the community.
“If the announced Cairn University decision stands, Cairn has failed its students, the social work community, and residents of the communities that depend on Cairn’s social work graduates to serve their communities,” NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW, said. “Given COVID and recent demands for more social workers in healthcare, schools, mental health and social services, this failure comes at a time when the need for social work services is greater than ever. NASW calls on Cairn University’s executive leadership to rescind this decision and offers its assistance in finding alternatives to addressing concerns.”
Last week, Cairn University, a small private Christian college located near Philadelphia, abruptly announced that it is closing its School of Social Work effective immediately.
If you visit Cairn University’s website now, you will find little evidence that the School of Social Work ever existed. There’s no mention of the 56-year history of the social work program or its status as the first Bible college to offer a BSW degree. There’s no bragging about the students or faculty, nor info about the school’s alumni – many of whom have gone on to be national and international leaders in social work. Instead, all you will find is a 404 error message: page not found.
The Cairn School of Social Work was doing well. It had recently been reaccredited for eight years by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and had met a milestone for starting a new master’s program. So why is it now closing and being completely erased?
The stated rationale by the University President for the closure was in response to an initial draft of new accreditation guidelines published by the CSWE. According to the announcement email sent from President Williams to the students and alumni, the decision is based on “significant changes” in the draft that “embraces a social and cultural agenda that now includes the acceptance of a view of human sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression that is inconsistent with the University’s biblical position on human sexuality” and is “built upon a set of critical theory and intersectionality assumptions and values inconsistent with our biblical view of humanity, human nature, and the world.”
Considering that a side-by-side comparison of the current and proposed CSWE standards finds almost no changes in the language on sexual orientation or gender identity that President Williams mentions, and Williams’ vague references to intersectionality and “critical theory,” it is unclear the degree to which this decision was also based on the inclusive, explicitly anti-racist language added throughout the document.
University President Todd Williams and his Board of Trustees made the decision in a closed-door meeting. There was no discussion, no opportunity for community or even internal comment, no chance for the School of Social Work to make the case for itself to continue. To our knowledge, the decision was made without Todd Williams or the Board of Trustees reaching out to the CSWE for clarification on the language that concerned them.
In today’s world of competing crises, the demand for trained, professional social workers has never been higher. In light of this, NASW and its Pennsylvania Chapter take issue with this decision and its impact on students, faculty, and staff. The stated rationale is even more concerning, as it appears to have been a reactionary, impulse decision from President Williams rejecting LGBTQ+-inclusive and anti-racist language in a draft document. The School has successfully integrated its Biblical teachings with social work’s diversity and anti-discrimination focus for more than 50 years, and that would have continued under the new CSWE standards were they to become final. However, President Todd Williams allowed his own snap judgement to supersede what is in the best interest of the University, the students, and the community that have been helped by the graduates of the social work program.
This decision must not stand and is the result of failed executive leadership at the university. As MSW student Karissa Forino stated, “I’m standing up now because the very training I received at Cairn University taught me I cannot ignore this act of injustice.” In an effort to amplify the voices of those most impacted, a few additional statements are included below:
- “The circumstances surrounding the end of the program leave me to question the hearts of those in authority at Cairn. Their stance on the LGBTQ+ feels like they are avoiding the real-life issues surrounding that community. Jesus calls Christians to serve, and it is shocking they would take out a program so dedicated to the service of others.” Julie Swanson, MSW student
- “We fight social injustice and oppression outside the walls of Cairn as Christian social workers, and for Cairn to become the oppressor [through President Williams’ actions] is incredibly heartbreaking.” Anonymous BSW student
- “Being a student of color, I’ve often had to push for changes in areas of diversity and representation. The School of Social Work is one if the few areas at Cairn I felt worked proactively on these issues and hoped to see this expand. Unfortunately, with the closing of the School of Social Work, I feel I am watching it diminish.” Simone Wesley, education student
- “This news is incredibly embarrassing and disappointing. To turn your backs on a 50+-year-old program with professors, staff, and students that were historically mainly BIPOC, is telling the LGBTQA+ and BIPOC community that their voices and experiences don’t matter.” Alexandra De Leo, LMSW, Cairn alumni
NASW and its Pennsylvania Chapter demand University President Todd Williams and the Board of Trustees immediately restore the School of Social Work, including retaining or reinstating the School’s faculty, and acknowledge the damage done to the University and its students. Additionally, any students who are forced to or who choose to transfer as a result of this decision should be partially reimbursed for tuition and expenses as restitution for the harm caused.
“Social workers play a vital role in making life better for others and are essential to the health and well-being of our communities,” said NASW-PA’s Executive Director Johanna Byrd, ACSW, CAE, IOM. “Any decision to close a social work program should be done inclusive of stakeholder input and after making every attempt to resolve conflicts. The capricious nature of this decision by President Williams displays an unconscionable lack of concern for the harmful impact to the students and the surrounding community.”
To learn what actions you can take to reverse the Cairn University decision and to sign a Change.org petition visit this NASW Pennsylvania webpage.