Surrounded, Not Abandoned

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A decade ago, in the first year of my presidency, a fellow president who was retiring from another independent Pennsylvania university shared with me his parting thoughts, all of which were sage-like in their tone and helpful to me. Among his insights he also told me that he believed the next 20 years would be very challenging for higher education institutions, especially smaller ones, and even more so for ones that are faith-based.

He believed I would see challenges over the course of my career which he never saw in his 25+ years as a president; that they would be complex and pervasive; that cultural, political, social, economic, and demographic challenges would make it difficult for many schools to survive, let alone thrive. He painted a picture of a future that I concluded would make strategic decision making, crisis management, creativity, frugality, fiscal restraint, organizational nimbleness, and risk taking extremely essential to success—a term which would also need to be redefined by most institutions.

I came away from that conversation both sobered and inspired. Sobered because the road ahead seemed to be one that would require all the grace, wisdom, and strength we could muster as a small, faith-based university; and because in our charge were precious students who needed to be taught and cared for, as well as prepared for and sent out into the world my colleague described. Inspired because I knew that Scripture teaches us that when the conditions are the hardest, when the context is the most challenging, when it seems we find ourselves in a wilderness, we are not without hope. If we seek God, we will find Him and realize we are not left alone to our own devices.

I was inspired also because I knew my institution and knew well that it had in its 100-year history been sustained and provided for by a God whose faithfulness is great and enduring. It was experienced and seasoned, strengthened by a century of walking a different path.

That day ten years ago, a scene from Band of Brothers came to mind, when Easy Company was being deployed at Bastogne. They were dropped into a wintertime battle with no winter gear and little ammunition or supplies. One man, already deployed, lists off the challenges Easy will face and concludes by saying that they are also surrounded. A non-commissioned officer responds confidently and simply, “We’re paratroopers. We’re always surrounded.”

Over the course of the past decade, there have been many challenges for many colleges and universities including Cairn. In the midst of these challenges there have been innumerable blessings, encouragements, and advancements. We have witnessed the development of new academic programs, new delivery modalities with online graduate degrees, new partnerships with national and international ministries, the hiring of excellent faculty and staff, increased fund raising, debt reduction, and the recruitment of outstanding students. There is a momentum here and an energy which not only encourages us in the midst of the contextual challenges facing us, but impresses upon us the importance of our mission.

Each year, I have the pleasure of meeting families at our Experience Cairn events for prospective students, all of which have enjoyed record attendance this year. I have met people from the local region, across the country, and around the world. I am always blessed by their willingness to share their impressions with me. Recently, one mom whose student will be joining us next year pulled me aside and said, “There’s something going on here that’s really special. We’re so thankful God brought us to Cairn. We feel like things are getting ready to break open in a big way at Cairn.” Her student is enrolling in one of our new undergraduate science degree programs.

I have also noticed many of my fellow students and even some of my former students are now bringing their children to Cairn. One alumnus told me that she and her husband weren’t even thinking about Cairn because their daughter was interested in the arts, but she learned about Cairn’s new art programs and asked to visit. It is so encouraging to see our graduates returning with their families and taking advantage not only of our long-standing programs but the new programs as well. And there is a growing and robust array of opportunities in the arts and athletics that is appealing to students. Thoughtful reflection is taking place as student groups facilitate deep and needed dialogue regarding difficult theological and cultural issues. We have reached a record number of honors students this year, sent out several missions and service teams, joined the community in addressing the opioid crisis, and so much more.

I hope this issue of Cairn gives you a deeper look at all of these aspects of our work. I trust that you will see that though the circumstances of our day may have us “surrounded,” we are never abandoned. In fact, we are on the move and advancing, by God’s grace and for His glory.

Dr. Todd J. Williams has been president of Cairn University since January 2008. He served on the faculty and administration from 1996-2001, and then returned as provost in 2005. He can be reached by emailing