Dropping Christian social work
Cairn University cites financial, ideological pressures in cutting the program
In 2013, John Sherk graduated from Cairn University in Pennsylvania with a social work degree, then worked in drug and alcohol counseling and mental health social work for several years. During his time at the Christian school, social work was a larger program, and he knew it had recently launched a master’s degree. So Sherk was shocked when he opened his email in May and found a message to alumni informing them Cairn would shutter the program effective fall 2021.
Alumni and a national social work organization have suggested the decision stemmed from reluctance to confront racism, but Cairn’s president said the program was cut due to falling enrollment. Changes in accreditation requirements surrounding issues of sexuality also played a role for the faith-based school.
The email announcement to alumni said the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the only body that accredits social work programs, had embraced values inconsistent with Cairn’s Christian worldview. CSWE in April released a draft of its new accreditation standards.
Some students, alumni, and the National Association of Social Workers speculated that Cairn opposed the draft’s strong promotion of anti-racism, a term popularized by scholar Ibram X. Kendi to describe opposition to what he calls structural racist inequalities. The draft listed anti-racism alongside diversity and equity as a required competency for social work.
But Cairn President Todd Williams denied this, saying the school is committed to fighting racism. Instead, he said the new draft placed opposition to racism in the same category as embracing various gender identities and expressions as well as sexual orientations. While the old standards required diversity and equity be taught explicitly, the new one included these concepts under its “implicit curriculum”, or values that ought to undergird the entire program. Williams saw this as a shift in how schools are permitted to handle not only diversity, but critical theory and intersectionality. “They expect us to teach them to students, that students are to embrace them, and to use them,” Williams wrote in an email. “Issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are now inextricably tied to issues of race and racism.”
But the more important factor wasn’t values but finances, according to Williams. Cairn’s social work program is well-regarded and more than 50 years old, but has sunk from a peak enrollment of about 125 students to about 50, he said. The recently launched master’s degree in social work would have had fewer than 20 students enrolled for fall 2021, short of Cairn’s goal of more than 40. Despite this, CSWE’s required student-faculty ratio and minimum faculty numbers meant the school would have needed to hire more faculty, Williams said, adding that the school’s board had been considering the move well before the new draft went public.
“We all want to be in the marketplace and doing good work and meeting human needs and addressing human suffering,” Williams said. “What we decided was we have to find other ways to do that.”
Cairn isn’t the only Christian school to drop degrees amid declining enrollment. Last September, Christianity Today reported schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities had cut at least 84 undergraduate majors since 2010.
Many cuts have been contentious as students, faculty, and administrators debate what programs are essential to Christian education. Sherk said he understood the financial reasoning but was disappointed that aspiring social workers can no longer receive training in a program committed to Biblical orthodoxy and justice for the poor, leaving the job to secular programs opposed to Christian values. “People who are poor and marginalized will be hurt the most,” Sherk said.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.