University changes name, but not its mission

Cairn University president Todd J. Williams discusses the name change. The school was previously Philadelphia Biblical University.
Cairn University president Todd J. Williams discusses the name change. The school was previously Philadelphia Biblical University. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 01, 2013

The former Philadelphia Biblical University in Langhorne took the Bible out of its name, but certainly not out of its mission.

"We're not trying to hide who we are," said Todd J. Williams, president of what became Cairn University last year. "We're trying to communicate more clearly all that we are."

All too often, even neighbors of the 100-acre campus thought that the university only prepared people for the ministry, Williams said, when less than a third of its graduates go that route, according to school statistics.

Cairn, which is celebrating its centennial this year, offers more than 50 programs, including degrees in social work, music, education, business, and liberal arts. All are taught with a biblical perspective, as the school's mission remains "to educate students to serve Christ in the church, society, and the world as biblically minded, well-educated and professionally competent men and women of character."

The name change, which cost the university $650,000 in marketing, signs, and other expenses, was necessary, as Cairn - like many other small private colleges - tries to compete for a shrinking pool of high school graduates. Cairn in recent years has struggled financially, finishing fiscal 2012 with a $857,915 deficit in its $28 million budget, according to its 990 tax form. Cairn wants to grow its undergraduate enrollment from the current 854 to more than 1,000, Williams said.

Cairn has joined other universities that have removed "Bible" or "biblical" from their name, such as Biola University in Los Angeles, Davis College in New York, and Pillar College in New Jersey.

It's not uncommon for colleges to rebrand themselves as they strive to stay competitive, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

"Certainly we're aware of many colleges for whom a perception or preconceived notion on the part of students that they are overly narrow can be a liability when it comes to actually meeting your revenue expectations," he said.

Neither enrollment or applications have soared at Cairn since the name change in July 2012. The school receives 600 to 700 applications a year. But Williams said he expected it would take a few years.

"It wasn't like we believed the name would be a silver bullet and fix the challenges that we're all facing in higher education," he said. "We just believe, over the long haul, this will serve us well."

The move met with some criticism from alumni who feared the school was altering its identity. But most alumni and students supported the move, school officials say.

"I loved it," said Katrina Ivashenko, a junior who is a social work major from central New Jersey.

Customers at the diner where she works on weekends frequently asked what she planned to do with her life, and when she told them she attended Philadelphia Biblical University, their response was less than enthusiastic.

"First of all, it's an awful big mouthful," she said. "Second of all, you always got the response, 'Oh. Are you going to be a pastor? Are you going to be a nun?' "

Now she tells them she goes to Cairn, which some have never heard of, and she explains what the university is really all about.

Cairn means a pile of stones that serves as a memorial or reminder of the past or marks a path.

"They bear witness and they point the way," said Williams, a 1992 Cairn graduate who started his career at Cairn teaching social and behavioral sciences. "We believe that's who we are and what we do as a university."

Cairn's tagline is "Walk a Different Path."

Founded in 1913, Cairn primarily focused on Bible education until 1967, when it began adding other degrees. It relocated from Center City to Langhorne in 1979. In 2000, it changed from a college to a university, which officials hoped would be enough to convey the broader offerings. But more change was needed, Williams said.

Michael Board, 31, a master's of divinity student who also earned his bachelor's at Cairn, didn't like the change at first.

"I wanted to have the name of the school on my diploma. I came to a biblical university," said Board, of Philadelphia.

But Board, who works as a custodian at Cairn while earning his degree, said he now supports the move, realizing it is in the best interest of the school.

Jonathan L. Master, dean of Cairn's School of Divinity, said the school's biblical requirements stayed intact. All students must complete 30 credit hours of Bible and theology courses, attend chapel, sign a covenant that requires honesty and other ethical standards, and perform community service.

"I didn't feel like the School of Divinity lost any power," said Master, a 1998 graduate.

Students attend Cairn because they want their learning to come through a biblical lens.

"Being that social work can be a very liberal field," Ivashenko said, "I realized I needed to go somewhere where my faith would be recognized."

Her older sister graduated from Cairn with an education degree and teaches at Calvary Christian School in Old Bridge, N.J. Ivashenko is interning this semester at the Children's Crisis Treatment Center in Philadelphia, where she works with 3-to 5-year-olds who have experienced severe trauma. She loves the work, she said, and her faith helps her cope with the dire circumstances facing the young children.

"It's very encouraging to be, like, 'OK, Lord, I know you're in control,' " she said.

Junior Timothy Smith, 20, a liberal-arts major from Mount Laurel, plays guitar and sings in the school band, called On the Way. The band aims "to reach the community and spread the name Cairn," Smith said.

Smith, who wore a Cairn sweatshirt, said he transferred in from another Christian college his freshman year, unsure he would stay. The name change was one of the main reasons he did.

"This school," he said, "wants to give you a solid, diverse, well-rounded world view."

The band plays Christian songs, but also pop tunes with positive messages, he said, such as Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down."

Cairn University At a Glance

Location: Langhorne

Founded: 1913

Type: Christian university

Enrollment: 854 undergraduate, 1,216 total.

Average freshman (high school) GPA: 3.2

Minority enrollment: 24 percent

Percentage of students living on campus: 70

Annual budget (2013-14): $29.3 million

*Endowment: $11.4 million

Acceptance rate: 68 percent

Yield (percentage of those accepted who enroll): 59 percent

Source: Cairn University *2012 990 Tax form

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