Planet Princeton

Lawyer promises lengthy battle if Rider University shuts down Westminster Choir College

Princeton lawyer Bruce is the lawyer for the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College. Photo: Krystal Knapp.

Princeton lawyer Bruce Afran foresees a lengthy court battle that could take years to resolve if Rider University closes down the school or allows it to be moved to another campus.

At a press conference Friday, flanked by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and members of the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College, Afran was firm about the group’s position that the closure of the school at the downtown Princeton campus will trigger litigation.

“The coalition is committed to fighting any sale that does not leave it intact as an operating organization. It needs to be keep here. We as a coalition will take legal action if this campus is closed. It should not be closed,” Afran said.

“If the campus is sold to developer who wants to build 200 townhouses, that is going to provoke litigation,” he said. “If it is sold to a private day school to operate a secondary school, that will provoke litigation. If it is closed and moved to another location, that will provoke litigation,” he said.

The group has communicated its position clearly to Rider University officials, Afran said. Some administrators for the Princeton Public Schools, school board members, and town leaders want Rider to sell the campus to the school district. Afran said the group would also fight such a move.

“Absolutely and without any ambiguity, any option for the Board of Education to buy this campus and turn it into a public school campus or community education campus is not on our table. That will provoke absolute litigation and will unfortunately pit part of the community against another part,” he said. “We believe the Board of Education has the insight and wisdom not to go down that route. In addition, it would require a bond issue of at least $40 million on Rider’s terms.”

Afran, who has represented residents in several controversial, high-profile cases, said he has never been in a situation like he is now with the Westminster case. He said every person who talks to him about the issue opposes Westminster’s move from Princeton.

“There is very little community interest in turning this elite, vaunted institution into a high school cafeteria or place for adult education,” he said. “We have enough of those facilities. We’re swimming in facilities.”

Westminster merged with Rider University in 1991. Afran said the merger agreement stipulates that Rider must operate the choir college unless it is “mutually, substantially adverse to both institutions.” He said it would be very difficult for Rider to justify any sale that closes the school. Afran said the school could be maintained by Rider, maintained by another educational institution on the Princeton campus, or spun off as an independent school again. “But closing its programs, breaking it apart, and separating its faculty is destructive to education,” he said. “The goal of bringing it back was not to throw the baby out the window. It was to make it a permanent cultural institution. To cut it off would be academic barbarism.”

Afran said the schools have grown together over last 25 years. “Rider is better and stronger for Westminster, and Westminster is stronger for Rider. To break this partnership apart would be destructive of something very important in New Jersey,” he said. “Westminster is our Juilliard. It is our Curtis Institute. Our friends across the street at Princeton University have an arts and music program as well. With no disrespect, both together can form a synergy in this community. Westminster is known throughout the world. For any academic institution to try to monetize it rather than stay together and work together would be wrong.”

Princeton University is in the process of building a $300 million arts and transit neighborhood on Alexander Street.

“They’re not doing that because it does not yield results. They are making that investment because as the governor (Kean) said, it is vital to the future of both the institution and the community and the state,” he said. “There was controversy about the project because of the removal of the train, but there was absolute unity in the community about the value of the Lewis Arts Center. It would be horribly ironic for community to be hosting the construction of a $300 million program that Princeton is building, and at the same time to close an 80-year program that has reached the peak of academic distinction.”

Supporters of the choir college said the school has built relationships with numerous local, state and Mid-Atlantic organizations and institutions over the last 80 years. They argue the synergy can’t be replicated anywhere else.

“It would be like moving Christ Church in Oxford  to Leeds, England,” Afran said, adding that a move would cost about $80 million. Folding the programs into other schools would break apart what is special about the choir college, he said.

A $4.5 million bond issue helped finance the choir college’s new performing arts center. Afran said Rider should be required to pay the money back if the campus is closed. He also said the merger agreement stipulates that the land must revert to the seminary if the school is closed. Afran claimed it would cost Rider $2 million to buy out the seminary.  Westminster has an endowment that must be used for the choir college. The coalition said it has offered to spin the college off as an independent school. The group would give Rider 50 percent of the endowment to cover the projected $10 million deficit the school officials say Rider will face in the coming years. Afran said the coalition has financial backers and professionals who are ready to support and run the school if it becomes independent.

“If litigation has to go forward, it will take many years and it will not allow Rider to close a deal on this property,” said Afran, who fought the Institute for Advanced Study’s plans to build faculty housing for about six years. “Rider will have far worse financial difficulties than it does today if tries to close this school.”

On Friday afternoon, the same day as the press conference, Rider University President Gregory Dell’Omo sent out an email updating the Westminster and Rider University community on progress to find a new partner for Westminster Choir College.

PricewaterhouseCoopers identified and communicated with more 280 potential partners, and Rider has received multiple proposals for each of three scenarios, he wrote. The Rider University Board of Trustees will review the proposals through the summer.

The three scenarios are, in priority:

1) An institution that is interested in purchasing the property and the choir college with the purpose of continuing to operate the school in Princeton

2) An institution interested in acquiring and relocating the choir college programs to another location

3) An entity that is interested in buying the property if the college is moved or closed down.

“We understand and appreciate the interest that all of you have in the future of Westminster. As I have committed to you, I will continue to keep you apprised of this work moving forward and will share additional updates throughout the summer,” Dell’Omo wrote.

This is the second story in a series about the potential sale of Westminster Choir College. Next: School board gives the green light to submit offer for Westminster campus.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Blake Cash

    Sorry to hurt your tiny bigoted mind, but there are world class orchestras and operas outside of NYC. But if proximity to your favorite venue is justification to locate the college within an hours drive, wouldn’t we need to know every single student, alumni, and faculty member’s favorite venue? How many stayed in Princeton after graduation?

    If the merger document is being violated Mr. Afran has a case. His words were he would sue under any circumstances, which does include legitimate reasons, as well as the sun rising.

  • Blake Cash

    The “spirit” of the college? Or do you concede the building is without emotion and you are speaking of alumni?

  • Robert Dana

    Oh please. (1) Whether or not the lawsuit is filed is irrelevant. The potential plaintiffs are using the “transaction costs”
    of defendants’ potential legal fees as leverage to get what they seek. In a system where the loser in litigation pays, they would not be able to do that. In our systems it’s tantamount to blackmail, albeit legal. (2) I’m not talking about the coalition’s legal fees or those of WCC; but rather, the legal fees of the potential defendants. Based on my prior comments, I’m struggling to understand how in the world you would have concluded that I was complaining about the coalition’s legal fees. Gee whiz.

  • Cynthia Regan

    No, I’m afraid you’re not informed. #1, the lawsuit does not yet exist. That is contingent on how Rider chooses to handle things. #2, the legal fees are being paid by members of the coalition, not the college itself. #knowledgeispower

  • Princeton Rez

    Did you even read the story Blake Cash? There is this legal document called a merger agreement that is referenced in the story. Rider has certain obligations under the agreement. If must abide by those terms. Tennessee is not a one hour train ride to the Metropolitan opera or philharmonic for student performances with world famous music groups, now is it?

  • Robert Dana

    I’m informed on the local news. I’m sorry if my reference to the NRA annoyed you, Mame. I was making a point about frivolous litigation and why it persists. To wit: The American Trial Lawyers Association.

    To my point, even if the college were to prevail in this lawsuit, it would have to fork over hundreds of thousand of dollars in legal fees. The end result of which – tuition will have to be increased for the non-musically inclined – at a time when those costs are huge and many of those who finance them are unable to pay them back.

  • Blake Cash

    WeatherServo9 and Barbara Calvert Freund, Are you denying that Rider owns Westminster Choir College? If not, what right does anyone have to threaten obstructive lawsuits to prevent it from doing as it wishes with its own property?

    Afran’s quotes are blatantly obstructive. Unless Rider keeps the college as it is, there will be costly lawsuits. Despite any alleged work behind the scenes, this is Afran’s public statement. He’s been practicing for a while, I suspect he is aware of intimidation via threats, or he would not have mentioned the dollar amounts this would cost Rider. Making such a threat towards an educational institution shows little interest in the forty two hundred students attending Rider, to protect a building which houses five hundred students.

    Because that is what the location is, a building. As WeatherServo9 points out, the college is the Staff and Students, not the building. It will be Westminster Choir College wherever it exists, I love my old school, but it no longer exists outside of my classmates, what we learned, and how we put what we learned to use.

    Keeping the college in Princeton may make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it will do nothing for the talented musicians from all over the world who will have to change the location of their studies. If I’m crossing an ocean to attend, what does it matter if I’m going to New Jersey or Tennessee?

  • Robert Dana

    What’s the cause of action Sir? Breach of contract? A tort? Breach of fiduciary duty? I’m serious. Please advise. You can’t bring a lawsuit unless it falls under a ’cause of action’ recognized under NJ law.

  • WeatherServo9

    Unless you are suggesting that the existence of Westminster Choir College itself has been “obstructive to free enterprise” for nearly a century, then a grassroots effort to save it, being funded and spearheaded entirely by current students, alumni, employees, professors and admirers from all over the world, should not be labeled as such, either.

    What this article does not go into is what Rider has been doing for years to try and use Westminster Choir College as both a scapegoat and a solution for its own problems. The people behind the coalition to save Westminster are only interested in the continued existence of the institution, and to try and save it from what would be, to use your word, a “bullying” decision by the Rider administration to close it. No one is promoting frivolous lawsuits or obstructing free enterprise. If the kinds of litigation mentioned in this article would ever come to fruition, it would be entirely because of the actions of the Rider administration.

    What this article also does not mention is what is happening behind-the-scenes to try and make sure that this situation never has to come to litigation at all.

    Anyone reading this article who is tempted to think that these threats are coming out of nowhere and represent some kind of moneyed interest engaging in frivolous lawsuits should take the time read up on this issue and get involved with it. This is a grassroots effort to try and save a Princeton landmark. Westminster Choir College is a venerable, historical institution and should not be relegated to the dustbin of history just to help the Rider administration cope with the consequences of its own mismanagement.

  • WeatherServo9

    This effort actually comes at the end of years of uncertainty and ambiguity from the Rider administration about its plans for closing the Choir College, and it represents the sincere interests of current students, alumni, professors and the larger community of admirers that the Choir College has gained in its 80-year musical history.

    I’m not sure why anyone reading this article would have, as their first reaction, ‘frivolous lawsuit,’ but if you really care you should read up on the history of this institution and the current effort to save it before you lump this grassroots effort in with things it isn’t related to.

  • Barbara Calvert Freund

    Mr. Cash, the possibility of litigation in this matter is not intended to be obstructive to free enterprise. This matter is not a political pulpit either. Westminster Choir College simply wants to continue in its mission of music.

  • Barbara Calvert Freund

    Mr. Dana, while your opinion is valued, please enlighten us just exactly how the NRA and its position has any bearing on the matter of keeping Westminster Choir College open and education musicians at its present location in Princeton. This is not a matter of lobbying nor is it a legal exercise. While some individuals care nothing for the place that art and music have in their lives, there are others who enjoy and value the creative spirit. If you have interest in this cause of action, I would urge you to read about it in the local news.

  • Robert Dana

    Bruce Afran and Tom Kean – perfect together. No. Seriously, I would be interested to learn plaintiff’s cause of action. Can’t survive a motion to dismiss without one. Too bad we don’t have a default ‘loser pays’ rule here in the States — to discourage this sort of lawsuit. For those of you who think the NRA is the most powerfull lobby, check out ATLA and it’s scorched Earth battle against tort reform.

  • Blake Cash

    These threats of litigation are obstructive to free enterprise. It was childish”bullying” when Trump made such threats, it is bullying now.
    There is no comparison to the Lewis center, which was forced on Princeton because PU received a grant contingent on building it.

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