I trust this letter finds you well. By now I am sure that many, if not most of you, have heard the news regarding the University’s decision to eliminate the social work programs at Cairn. This decision was not an easy one. Social work has enjoyed a 55-year history at our alma mater. We have prepared several generations of professional men and women to serve in this field. For this we are grateful. We are also grateful for the men and women who have served on the faculty and staff in the social work programs over the years and for the impact they and our graduates are having now and will have for years to come. But conditions have changed, and the University has made this decision based upon a carefully considered, multifaceted rationale.
This decision was not arrived at hastily, nor was it based upon any single issue. At its May 24 meeting, the Board of Trustees approved a recommendation to close the School of Social Work made by administration based upon analysis of enrollment, including enrollment trends and trajectories; the costs associated with the program, particularly those prescribed by The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) regarding faculty-to-student ratios; and the value impositions placed upon the University by this accrediting body with which we are not only associated but to whom we are also accountable for both institutional standards and student competencies.
We acknowledge there is disagreement and division concerning this decision and its rationale within the Cairn community. We have received both messages of criticism and of affirmation. The administration; academic leaders; and the Board of Trustees, with whom final authority resides, are in agreement that this decision was necessary given our institutional distinctives and strategic concerns. CSWE has been notified of our intention to withdraw from accreditation. Authority for this decision rests with the Board of Trustees, and their decision is final. And so, I urge you as fellow alumni to be sensitive to this and to show an eagerness to maintain Christian unity and to interact in a way that reflects grace, wisdom, and love.
Colleges and universities across the country have been in similar situations, eliminating programs, modifying academic offerings, and creating new opportunities where there is potential for growth. Cairn is no exception to this reality. Higher education in general, and Christian higher education especially, is facing days of tremendous strain and potential. Both the contextual and institutional challenges we face require of us a willingness to make difficult decisions to ensure our ability to remain true to what makes us unique with regard to our missional commitments and to be good stewards of our strategic resources. The Board and I have been discussing these challenges and how to respond to them at almost every meeting for years.
Since this decision was announced on Wednesday, there has been some conjecture and misunderstanding in our community regarding the decision and its rationale. I am writing this now in an attempt to help with that by communicating to you, our alumni, including the social work alumni who received my letter last week in special communication to them. I am providing a link to that letter here so that you can see precisely what was communicated. As you read my letter, you will see our commitment to students regarding the completion of their degrees, our commitment to finding additional and new ways to meet human needs and address human suffering in other programs, and the rationale for what is an impactful and very significant decision. I will amplify and elaborate on a few matters here to the degree that it is appropriate to do so.
We are already working to care for the current students in the social work programs. There is a transition team in place to manage this process. Dr. Juliet Campbell-Farrell, Mrs. Megan Krouse, and Dr. Lawrence Ressler comprise the team. They will be working with the Registrar's Office and me to ensure the students are cared for to the best of our ability. Undergraduate students will be a part of a teach-out program that will be carried out according to CSWE criteria. We will remain current with all CSWE criteria until the teach-out program is completed. All graduates will earn degrees that are CSWE-accredited, enabling them to serve as licensed social work professionals. MSW students will be transferred to partner schools as allowed for by the CSWE. The University will ensure that there is no negative financial impact to them. Incoming social work students will be converted to other programs, many of whom have already done so. We recognize that some may choose to attend other schools.
The rationale for this decision has been discussed thoroughly by the Board, the Governance Committee of the Board, the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board, and the President’s Cabinet. The analysis and recommendation came from the Provost’s Office in conjunction with other members of the administration and staff prior to the Provost’s resignation and before the latest draft of the CSWE standards were presented to me. This analysis showed that we have programs that are struggling with regard to enrollment and are disproportionately more costly than other programs. Strategic resources are limited, and members of the Board of Trustees have been asking for an analysis to inform our allocation of those strategic resources to programs where there are opportunities for growth and where mission fit is optimal.
This fall, with the 10 or so students who were planning to enroll in the BSW program, there would have been about 60 undergraduate students enrolled in the School of Social Work. The MSW program, which we had hoped would have an enrollment of more than 40 in two to three years, would have had fewer than 20 students enrolled for Fall 2021.
These enrollment numbers are one factor, but they are complicated by CSWE standards for personnel resources: to maintain a 20:1 student-faculty ratio in the undergraduate program and to employ six full-time faculty by the time of full approval of the graduate program, regardless of enrollment. This prescriptive approach to faculty allocation puts a significant strain on our limited resources and impacts our strategic allocation of resources to other areas of opportunity and need. Even if the CSWE reduced these ratios, as they have been discussing, to 25:1 and 4 respectively, we would still be strained. In our judgment, the CSWE is a relatively prescriptive accrediting body. And these prescriptions not only address resource allocation but also values and purpose.
The CSWE distributed a draft including their new standards and criteria as well as student competencies in April 2021. When I was informed in May that this draft had been distributed, we read it carefully. It is clear that the trajectory of the CSWE is one that will place us in an untenable position regarding our biblical convictions about human sexuality. The document also makes statements about the explicit and implicit curricular requirements built upon theoretical foundations and assumptions inconsistent with who we are as a biblical university and our understanding of God, humanity, sin, redemption, and biblical reconciliation. In addition to these changes, the CSWE draft also indicates that individual schools will no longer be able to interpret the standards and competencies in light of their own mission but will instead need to align their mission with the profession and the accrediting body. This is not something we will do. I want to be clear that the Board and I understand this is a draft, that it is not yet in effect, and that the standards would not have applied to us for a few years. However, delaying this decision would have only made the implications of it for us financially and ideologically more complicated. Given all of these factors, this was the best time for us to make this decision—as hard as it was to do so.
I understand, as does the Board of Trustees, that not everyone will agree with this rationale or the decision. After the dean of the School of Social Work was informed of the recommendation being made by administration to the Board, he was given the opportunity to meet with board leaders and to submit in writing his concerns and position, which he did. Dr. Gestoso is a long-time personal friend of mine, and he has served the institution faithfully for more than 20 years. He argued passionately about his concerns and vision. The Board heard his rationale and deliberated, but they still believe it is in the best interest of the University to close the School of Social Work. Dr. Gestoso disagrees with the University's direction, so he is not in a position to lead the program to its end. While he is no longer leading the program, he remains on the University payroll with full pay and benefits for the duration of his agreement through next academic year.
I also acknowledge that there may be disagreements with the University’s positions on these values. But this is not an institution that can fulfill its mission when there are competing visions for who we are, what we should be doing, or even how we should navigate these difficult waters in an increasingly secularized context. The Board and I have been discussing social and cultural issues as well as ideological matters impacting the University and our mission at every meeting for several years. I’ve been attempting to address this for the past couple of years in meetings with the faculty and staff, and will continue to do so with greater degree of specificity as we go forward.
There is no question this decision is impactful to alumni; students; colleagues; and the institution, which has had a history with social work for more than five decades. Difficult decisions are never without difficult implications; however, this does not mean they should not be made. We need to be in prayer for our faculty and staff, our current students, our fellow alumni, and the institution. We also must accept responsibility for what we do to care for the students, one another, and the University; to be careful not to do harm; and to be Christian in the way we think about and respond to these matters.
It is my prayer that you will receive this information in the spirit with which it is intended: to clarify for you, to the extent that it is appropriate to do so, the thinking behind a decision that is not without impact or implications. In the letter sent to social work alumni linked above, you will see a number of FAQs. I hope that they will be helpful. If you wish to share any feedback, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Todd J. Williams, PhD
President, Cairn University