Students, parents, seek injunction banning Rider University from selling or moving Westminster Choir College (updated)

A group of Westminster Choir College students and parents who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Rider University is seeking an injunction to stop the school from selling or moving the choir college, which is located in the heart of Princeton.

Seven students and parents are plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in the United States District Court of Southern New York. The group is represented by Eric Vaughn-Flam of Ortoli Rosenstadt, a Madison Avenue law firm in Manhattan.

The order to show cause for a preliminary injunction seeks to stop the school from: taking any action to sell, relocate or close the Westminster Choir College and shut down any of its programs, degrees or activities;  stop the school from making public statements about selling, relocating or closing Westminster Choir College, programs, degrees or activities; and stop the school from taking any action to spend the proceeds of the university’s line of credit of $15 million for any purchase other than Westminster Choir College.

In a memorandum supporting the order to show cause, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that Rider University can only sell, relocate or close the choir college under a 1991 merger agreement if the university demonstrates that it is  “impracticable” or adverse to its interests to continue the operation of the choir college.They plaintiffs argue the university has not proven this, and that Rider University’s use of Westminster Choir College as collateral for a $42 million bond while trying to sell the school to a for-profit Asian company with no experience in higher education is evidence to bolster their claims.

The suit also argues that university officials’ continued public statements and actions about the sale, relocation, or closure of Westminster Choir College, or the laying off of its faculty, will lead to the choir college suffering “irreparable harm.” The plaintiffs also argue that a temporary injunction will not be a hardship for Rider because there is no sale of the choir college that is pending.

Rider Spokeswoman Kristine Brown said the school was aware of the injunction filed by the parent and student plaintiffs. “This is just one component of a complex process that we will address,” she said in a statement. “Meanwhile, the University will continue to work diligently with our partner to finalize the term sheet. As we have said before, we are taking these steps to ensure that is process is deliberate and reflects the best interests of Westminster Choir College.”

Last week, a federal judge in Trenton ruled that Rider officials could continue to negotiate the sale of the choir college. Rider University’s faculty union, the American Association of University Professors, sought an injunction to stop any sale while arbitration over pending layoffs looms.

In the fall, the university sent layoff notices to faculty members and staff at the choir college.  School officials said the potential buyer would rehire the professors, a claim faculty are skeptical about.

Rider University officials have not identified the prospective buyer of the choir college, but have described the buyer as an “international partner from Asia.” The deal has not been finalized yet.

In early December, Rider University President Gregory Dell’Omo sent a letter out to faculty, staff and students saying the school still did not have a “term sheet” in place with the buyer. “Consequently, we are not yet in a position to introduce the partner to you,” he wrote. “We realize this is taking longer than many in our community would have hoped, and we share your desire to speed up the process.”

Dell’Omo said the potential buyer hired a project manager and an accreditation consultant recommended by the choir college to help coordinate accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Music. The project manager will work with other consultants and the Westminster community to help lead this process to a successful conclusion, Dell’Omo wrote. “At the earliest opportunity, we plan to bring all consultants to campus to meet with our constituencies,” he wrote.

“In the next several weeks, we have meetings scheduled to try to finalize the term sheet. As we have indicated previously, this document is non-binding. However, it is a road map for the drafting of the binding transfer agreement.That effort will begin upon completion of the term sheet,” he wrote. “Although we had hoped to share the name of the partner by this time, the negotiations remain confidential and both Rider and the partner have committed to maintaining their confidentiality until we are further along in the process. Please know that we are working as quickly as possible to advance the process to the point where introduction is appropriate and have discussed this issue at length together. As soon as we are able to do so, we will.”