A small Christian university outside Philadelphia closed its highly regarded social work program in part because school officials said the accreditation agency was trying to enforce sexuality and gender values that are inconsistent with the university’s religious mission.
According to these officials, the May 24 decision of the Cairn University Board of Trustees has been under scrutiny for nearly a year due to funding and enrollment issues. They say the accreditation language is just one factor.
However, representatives from the accreditation body – the Council on Social Work Education – said their sexuality and gender language had not changed significantly in a recent accreditation draft, although the language that addresses race and inclusion was updated. Council leaders said in a written statement they were concerned that Cairn officials misinterpreted the language or based the closure decision on a growing barrage of conservative voices opposed to teaching theories to rearrange the history of race and racism .
The group’s response contradicted Cairn President Todd Williams’ statements that the council was attempting to force programs to “teach a set of assumptions and values of critical theory and intersectionality that are consistent with our biblical view of humanity, human nature and the world are incompatible ”.
Cairns mission is “to train students to serve Christ in the Church, society and the world as biblical-minded, well-educated, and professionally competent men and women of character,” according to the website. Langhorne University, about 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia, has about 1,500 students.
The council called Williams’ statements about language “false” and found that the draft emphasized the importance of justice and inclusion in a person’s identity.
Williams dismissed the idea that the closure was based on guidelines for race, saying racism and discrimination were inconsistent with his and the larger university’s beliefs.
“It’s unfortunate that it came out this way because it is absolutely not who we are,” said Williams.
“We identify as an evangelical institution and have standards of conduct based on our beliefs. This is part of our understanding of our own faith, but also of religious freedom. We do not believe that it is right to participate in anything that is hateful or offensive to this (LGBTQ) community, or to engage in any form of discrimination. But we are a religious institution, ”he said.
Williams’ first letter to students said he believed previous versions of the guidelines had language that allows for exceptions when a university’s religious mission is inconsistent with the document.
CSWE officials said there was never an exception in their ethical guidelines. However, they allow universities to supplement the requirements with additional curricula.
Cairn students and alumni who spoke to The Associated Press said they felt the decision taken by surprise. The university moved quickly and even removed the social school website, they said.
The closure enables a “teach-out” of the currently enrolled Bachelor students, ie the approx. 50 students complete their studies with an accredited Bachelor. But the master’s course that had just started was closed immediately, so that around two dozen students had to move to other universities.
Many of these students and alumni said they did not believe Williams’ statements had anything to do with race. They also said they see no problem separating their theological beliefs about sexuality and gender from being reputed to be social workers.
“If you’re a well-trained social worker, you don’t have to let your theology get in the way of your social work or help a population you disagree with on a theological level,” said Lizzie Walker, who led the program in 2018 “I think my beliefs go very well with the mission to be a social worker, to meet people where they are.”
Johanna Byrd, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, condemned the closure, saying the university seemed to be sending the wrong message that social workers do not have or can maintain their beliefs and do their jobs.
“There are many Christian colleges that offer social work programs and this is the first to respond by saying that we are going to close our social work school. We have concerns, of course, that may be part of a trend, ”Byrd said, noting a failed attempt in Texas last year to allow social workers and others to opt out of treatment for people based on their religious beliefs about gender and sexuality.
“It would be really terrible if the social work profession fell victim to this whole discussion of critical racial theory or the misconception that you cannot be a Christian and do this job. That is absolutely wrong, ”she added.
Student Melanie Crosscombe, who has a year left to graduate, said after the first graduation email quoting sexuality language that she compared the draft with previous accreditation documents and found little difference.
“This section of the document has existed before, and it doesn’t say you have to subscribe to these beliefs, but you have to understand them in order to treat the whole person,” she said. “It is said that when a person comes to you, they deserve to be understood and treated with human dignity and respect … that fits very well with the concept that people are made in the image of God and the worth that someone has just because of being human. ”
Crosscombe said her greatest concern is for the classes below her and that they will miss the experience that has turned so many people into social workers willing to do hard and important work.
“That keeps me up at night,” she said.
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