Faculty at Westminster Choir College joined together Thursday to express their frustrations after receiving layoff notices from Rider University in the midst of the school’s negotiations with an unnamed third-party buyer to take over the Princeton campus next year.
Rider University and Westminster Choir College faculty members expressed disappointment about not being included in the negotiation process with the buyer, whose identity has stayed confidential since the September announcement about the school’s sale. They contrasted the process with the way the choir college’s merger took place many years ago.
Members of the teachers’ union, the American Association of University Professors, held a press conference after a faculty meeting with Rider University President Gregory Dell’Omo, Dean of Westminster College of the Arts Marshall Onofrio, Board of Trustees Chair Robert Schimeck, and attorney Mark Solomon.
“When the merger occurred between Rider and free-standing Westminster in 1991, it was not a secret,” said AAUP chief negotiator and sociology professor Jeff Halpern. “We had demands of the same sort we’re making now, that the faculty has to be integrated into the existing faculty. We haven’t been invited. In fact, we haven’t been given information we requested. So it’s not going to be a seamless transition as it goes through.”
In a letter to the Rider community on Tuesday, Dell’Omo said Westminster Choir College may have to close if the deal does not go through. However, AAUP members are doubtful that a closure will actually happen, claiming it’s just a scare tactic.
“If this deal doesn’t go through, first of all, the board of trustees has not even approved the closing of the institution,” said Halpern. “It’s simply a threat to get people to be compliant. It’s a classic act of bullying.”
Although faculty members are skeptical about the buyers’ intentions for WCC, Dell’Omo told students in his letter that “the partner would want the current WCC faculty and staff to continue employment after the transition from Rider.”
Halpern said skepticism from faculty members is more than warranted. “The narrative that’s out there is that this isn’t really a layoff, because it’s just a simple transition, almost invisible — one employer takes over for another, but the faculty and staff will note no difference,” he said. “But our position on that is that there’s no legally binding evidence that’s true…To say there are no problems would be to treat us like children. It’s what you say a child when you don’t want to tell them you’re bankrupt or your getting divorced.”
While the university maintains that it has been required to keep the negotiation process confidential, some details have surfaced so far. The university confirmed to the faculty that the buyer is a for-profit, Asian K-12 institution that does not have a background in higher education, Halpern said. Rumors spread earlier in October that the buyer might be an organization called Guanghua Education Group, but the university has not confirmed the buyer is from China.
Ricer University Spokeswoman Kristine Brown said confidentiality is normal in early negotiations. “In this situation, both parties remain under a confidentiality agreement,” she said.
Brown also said the negotiation process began in August. “Since then, we have been working closely with the partner to begin the due diligence process,” Brown said, adding that the negotiation process is only nearing its third month. “Our goal is to move the process along as quickly as possible, but it is intricate and complex,” she said.
One of the worried among some faculty members is that the for-profit group won’t maintain Westminster as a choir college, and may turn it into a boarding high school.
“This is a rising business — there’s a big demand in China for schools that will prepare students of the elite upper class to get into British and American universities,” Halpern said.
The AAUP is also doubtful that Westminster Choir College has caused a financial burden to the university. The choir college’s endowment of $20 million is greater than the $56 million Rider makes as a university with about 4,000 students, union leaders said.
“This is a part of Rider that has more students trying to get into it than any other program,” Halpern said. “It’s not a major drain to Rider. We don’t believe that because you can make money in some alternate investment, that it justifies that sale of that college.”
Brown said the university will “continue the due diligence process with the potential partner, which involves sharing information and answering questions. Our next step is to agree upon key terms of the transaction before moving forward.”