Planet Princeton

Opponents of Westminster Choir College sale vow to continue fight to save the Princeton school

Lawyer Bruce Afran and Rider University faculty union leader Jeffrey Halpern discuss the sale of Westminster Choir College with reporters Monday afternoon.

Opponents of Rider University’s plan to sell Westminster Choir College in downtown Princeton to a for-profit Chinese corporation vowed Monday that they will continue to challenge the sale of the prestigious school in court.

A union leader representing professors at Rider University and Westminster Choir College called the announcement by Rider officials last week that a $40 million sales agreement has been finalized with a company called Kaiwen Education a public relations stunt. The union sent a letter to the board of trustees for Rider University on June 7 calling the plans to sell the college “a disastrous path.”

“The proposed sale is contingent on factors that Rider cannot guarantee, such as ongoing lawsuits, a lack of accreditation, contract arbitration and state approvals,” said Jeffrey Halpern, the head of Rider University’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Halpern said Westminster was not losing money when officials announced that the school would be sold. “Our best and most famous program is being sold because it is not a cash cow,” he said. “It is being sold to obtain a cash windfall for other campus projects.”

Bruce Afran, a Princeton lawyer who represents a group of alumni and Westminster donors who are challenging the sale in court, said Rider’s efforts to sell a college within a nonprofit university are unprecedented. When universities divest themselves from a college or program, he said money typically does not change hands. A suitable buyer was not found for the choir college because Rider officials wanted between $40 and $60 million for the property, Afran said. He also questioned the fitness of Kaiwen to run a college when the company has zero experience in higher education and, according to public filings, only has $26 million in cash. “It boggles the mind,” Afran said.

“Westminster is almost a 100-year-old institution. This company, which has been in the steel and bridge business, has only been running a boarding school in China since December,” Afran said. “That would be like me handling a major murder trial a week after getting out of law school.”

He noted that the in the statement Rider University distributed last week about the sale, Kaiwen is only required to maintain current academic programs for five years, and to operate the campus for 10 years. “It’s like an oncologist saying the survival rate is only guaranteed to be five years,” he said.

Opponents of the sale worry that after five years, the school later would be turned into an international boarding school.

“We intend to continue to litigate,” Afran said. “We hope Rider officials quickly come to an understanding that there are better alternatives.”

Rider University took over operating the choir college in 1991. Over the last 15 years, fundraising efforts have been strong, Afran said, and the school is not in the same position is was almost 30 years ago. Opponents of the sale want the school to become an independent organization again. “Rider has been making millions using the Westminster name for its college of the arts at the Lawrenceville campus,” he said. “Now Rider wants to pocket $40 million to do other things on campus.”

Afran said the land Westminster was given in the 1930s was donated for the sole purpose of  operating a liturgical musical school. Rider University took over the school with the understanding that the university would continue to operate it as a choir college. “Rider can’t just end the program. If it does, the school should revert to its independent status,” he said. Afran accused Rider of raiding a charitable asset, and compared selling Westminster to the famous Robertson legal battle against Princeton University that raised questions about how closely a university must adhere to the terms of a gift. Princeton University settled that case out of court,  paying $40 million in legal fees and another $50 million plus interest to create a new foundation to support education for government service.

Afran also said the state must approve all educational programs. Opponents of the sale will challenge any state approvals and file another court case if necessary, he said. The New Jersey Attorney General should also look into various issues related to the sale, faculty members said.

“All the assets were gifts, given  specifically for the purpose of music education,” Afran said. “The land the school sits on and the buildings were gifts that were not meant to be sold by a nonprofit to a for-profit to control and own. I’m sure the new governor will be concerned about this New Jersey cultural gem.”

Two cases are already pending regarding the sale. Parents, teachers, alumni and donors are the plaintiffs in a federal case that was filed in New York City. Princeton Theological Seminary also filed a case in New Jersey challenging the sale.

The faculty union has also promised to challenge any layoffs of Westminster faculty and staff. Union leaders are confident the school will not win when the matter is sent to arbitration. Halpern said the union has asked for a copy of the Westminster sales agreement, but has not received a response from college officials.

Opponents of the sale will host a public forum at Nassau Presbyterian Church at 7 p.m. this Wednesday, June 27. The forum is being sponsored by the Westminster Foundation.

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.

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