Hundreds protest ahead of Rider University Trustees meeting on fate of Westminster Choir College


Hundreds of students, faculty members, alumni and community supporters gathered at Rider University early Tuesday morning to call on the school’s leadership to keep Westminster Choir College in Princeton.

The event, organized by the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College and the Rider University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, was held as the Rider University Board of Trustees prepared to meet to decide the fate of the choir college, one of the top music schools in the country. School officials have been considering selling the Princeton campus and moving the school to the main Rider campus in Lawrenceville.

In speech and song, protesters expressed their opposition to closing down the Princeton campus. Many of the protesters carried banners and posters, and a four-page newspaper “O Westminster! Stand together! We must protect Westminster!” was distributed widely on campus.

Choir college students like freshman Max Gray from Tallahassee, Florida talked about their experiences attending a world-class music school and the special character of the campus in Princeton.

“I don’t know where I would go if the school is moved or closed,” he said, adding that no other school offers the same environment for choral singers, organists and other musicians.

Freshman Sarah Williams said she was accepted to five schools with excellent music programs but chose Westminster for its small class sizes and sense of community.

Art Taylor, the head of the Rider University AAUP Executive Committee, said the proposal to sell the Princeton campus is rash and ill-conceived and has “little basis in reality” in terms of the financial challenges Rider currently faces. The AAUP says the Rider administration wants to sell the property in order to finance additional building on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus in the hopes that new construction will attract more students.

Opponents of selling the Princeton campus argue that the sale is unnecessary and would ultimately lead to the end of the cultural gem that educates future leaders in the music world. Some added that if the school is going to sell the campus, leaders should look for another educational institution to take it over instead of making a hasty decision to sell the property.

In recent months, a petition drive opposing the closure of the Princeton campus has received thousands of signatures and people have flooded the Rider University president’s office with letters opposing the move. The president of Julliard wrote a letter to the head of Rider University last week calling for the preservation of the choir college.

“I know you are aware of the exceptionally important and distinguished role that the Choir College has played in the history of America’s classical music environment,” wrote Joseph Polisi. “Although I understand that your university has been grappling with economic challenges, I ask you to consider the irreparable damage that would take place within our musical system if Westminster were to stop functioning. At a time of proposed cutbacks on the federal level for the arts in general, eliminating the Choir College and its good work would be both a symbolic and real blow to our culture.”

Protesters stood outside of North Hall Tuesday morning for more than two hours as a gentle rain turned into a downpour. Then some members of the group moved inside a campus building.

Members of the media were banned from academic buildings, residence halls and dining facilities, and university staff members were told in an email obtained by Planet Princeton not to speak to reporters and to instead direct them to the communications office, and were given a script to use if contacted by a member of the press.

A formal announcement about the school administration’s decision regarding the choir college campus is expected Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College has incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity and has hired a lawyer. Donors to the choir college also have threatened legal action.

Joseph Beck, a 1959 graduate of Westminster Choir College, a long-time supporter of the school, made a generous donation to the new Marion Buckelew Cullen Center on the Princeton campus, which opened in October 2014. Angered by Rider’s plan to dismantle Westminster Choir College, he told school officials in a letter last month that he will ask for reimbursement of the money he has donated over the last nine years if this plan proceeds.

“Rider President Dell’Omo seeks to save Rider by destroying Westminster. In the end, he will not be able to rescue Rider, but Westminster’s support group of parents, alumni, donors, and friends fully intends to save this treasure,” Beck wrote. “I will request that Rider either refund my donations or disperse them to the various colleges that would benefit by accepting the incredibly talented students who could no longer train and study at WCC. I would strongly urge my fellow donors who are dismayed at the leadership of the Rider administration to withhold their checks if the Rider Board of Trustees votes to sell the campus.”

Many faculty members at Rider University are at odds with the president of the university, Greg Dell’Omo. On April 11, faculty members will consider a vote of no confidence. Critics of the Dell’Omo say he is an autocrat who does not engage students, faculty and staff when making decisions. They say he only focuses on the school’s balance sheet, but is inconsistent in terms of how he applies his logic. He has targeted the choir college since he arrived in 2015, attempting to eliminate the piano program and a dozen other majors. But even though athletics programs are not a profit center, there is no talk of cutting those programs, faculty say. Dell’Omo’s critics also say he has refused to share any financial data to support proposed measures like selling the Princeton campus. Faculty claim he publicly proposed to move the choir college to the Lawrence campus but then met with professors privately and proposed the complete closure of the choir college as a possible option.

The current Rider AAUP contract expires in August, and there is talk of a strike. Faculty say unreasonable demands are being made on them after the faculty made concessions in 2015 in order to save the piano major and a dozen other programs.

The university enrolled just over 5,000 students last year, down 1,000 from six years prior and the lowest in at least two decades. Dell’Omo said in December that the university, struggling with declining enrollment and financial deficits, needed to consider selling the 23-acre Westminster campus in Princeton. School officials have been doing a study since then, the third such study in recent years.

Formerly an independent school that traces its roots to the founding of the Westminster Choir in 1920 in Dayton, Ohio, the choir college moved to Princeton in 1932 and merged with Rider in 1992 because of financial struggles.