Christian university cuts social work program due in part to LGBTQ issues

Executive leadership of Cairn University, a Christian university in Bucks County, Pa., announced last month that the school’s undergraduate and graduate social work programs would be eliminated beginning in the fall of 2021. 

In a letter to social work alumni, Cairn University President Todd Williams detailed reasons for the closure of the program, including significant changes to the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) criteria for accreditation that are “inconsistent with our institutional commitments,” as well as the CSWE’s inclusion of “a view of human sexuality, gender identity and gender expression that is inconsistent with the University’s biblical position on human sexuality.” 

In a second letter to Cairn students, Williams said, “we acknowledge there is disagreement and division concerning this decision and its rationale within the Cairn community.” 

Another university document lists low enrollment and high program costs as additional reasons for terminating the social work program. For some students already enrolled, the school is providing a “teach-out program” in which they can continue working toward their social work degrees. 

Cairn social work alumna Lizzie Walker told PGN she finds the decision “frustrating and really confusing. We’re [a few] weeks removed from the announcement. There’s still so many unanswered questions and so much silence. Cairn was the first bible college to have a social work program in the country. So seeing it from that framework… this is deep.” 

Other alumni, some of whom do not hold a social work degree from Cairn, share Walker’s consternation toward the university’s decision to cut the program. 

“I am not for the decision,” said Cairn alumnus Gaines Taylor, who attended the program in youth ministry. “Being gay myself and being part of the queer community, it’s disappointing but not surprising. My sister is a social worker and there are different things she may not agree with, but social work is about helping people and it doesn’t matter who you’re helping.”

Taylor told PGN that he had a hard time being out on Cairn’s campus. As an older student with more lived experience, he tried to start an LGBTQ support group but was met with opposition.

“They didn’t even let me put flyers up,” Taylor said. “[The group] wasn’t allowed to meet on campus. It never really took off. There was no room for any emotional or mental support.” He currently serves as director of Refuge Faith Community, which welcomes LGBTQ people. 

A 2016 request for supplemental approval of Cairn’s existing religious exemption under certain sections of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which have to do with religious institutions and sex discrimination, reads in part that Cairn University endorses “the historic orthodox Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality. As such, we hold that the behavioral expression of human sexuality is intended only to take place within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. We also believe that gender is part of the order of God’s creation from the beginning and that humans are created male and female and that both are very good in God’s eyes.” 

However, some Cairn alumni believe that the reasons for cutting the social work program do not lie in the school’s aversion to LGBTQ ways of life or even low enrollment, but that issues of racial equity are at the heart of the matter. 

In a press release, the National Association of Social Workers, in addition to condemning Cairn’s decision, communicated 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.” The release goes on to say that “it is unclear the degree to which this decision was also based on the inclusive, explicitly anti-racist language added throughout the document.” 

“I think the main impetus is really around the issue in the changes in some of the accreditors’ language around race and diversity,” said Cairn alumnus David Thomas, who has degrees in secondary education and counseling theology. “What I do believe [is that] they utilized the issues around gender and sexuality as the main reason as to why they’re going to shut [the program] down. As an institution of faith, they can very clearly say that they can take that as a stance… not so easily when it [comes to] issues of race and diversity.”

Walker said that she too found inconsistencies between President Williams’ reasoning for eliminating the social work program and the language in the new teaching standards. “When you put the communications from Dr. Williams together with the CSWE articles, it’s confusing. It doesn’t make sense.”  

When asked to respond to some alumni’s beliefs that racial discrimination is the underlying reason for the closure of the social work program, Paul Neal, Senior Vice President of Advancement and Communications at Cairn, said in an email: “While the University understands that some alumni may have that perspective, it certainly isn’t shared by many other alumni. Nor does it align with the facts about the decision as detailed in the attached [document].”

The details in the document regarding the decision to shutter the program include: “enrollment, including enrollment trends and trajectories; costs associated with the program, particularly those prescribed by the CSWE regarding faculty-to-student ratios; and compatibility with the CSWE values and purposes as well as explicit curricular requirements given the institution’s mission and distinctives.”

Though not a social work alumnus, Thomas recognizes that Cairn’s decades-old social work program teaches students to seek out and foster change in communities that may differ from their own. 

“I think the message [they are] sending to current students is that Cairn is trying to separate its ability to have an impact in more secular industry spaces,” Thomas said. “Most individuals go to Cairn because they want to make an impact in those spaces. To eliminate one of the programs that has historically been the one that has gone into those spaces says that Cairn is potentially taking a different posture toward the type of student it wants to produce and the type of impact it wants to have in the city, the region and the nation.”

In his letter to social work alumni, President Williams communicated that university faculty and staff would devise other methods for students to engage in humanitarian work in the absence of the social work program.

Walker told PGN that the dismantling of the program “is hard because [Cairn] is a space that I found a home in, in a lot of ways. I do love Cairn, and [that’s] a very complex thing — there’s a lot of pain and sadness that people have experienced that I didn’t experience because of who I am. For me, my experience was a good one. I built beautiful relationships that are probably going to be lifelong friendships, and it was so formative to me. So it’s sad to see stuff like this.”