Rider University plans to move Westminster Choir College’s programs to the Lawrence campus beginning with the 2020-21 academic year, school officials announced Monday. The announcement comes less than a week after the board of a Chinese company called Kaiwen Education voted to cancel a deal to buy the Princeton campus and take over the operation of all the choir college programs.
Rider University Officials said in the announcement Monday that Westminster Choir College, the Westminster Conservatory and the Westminster continuing education programs will operate in Princeton one more academic year.
But Bruce Afran, the lawyer for a nonprofit group called the Westminster Foundation that has been trying to save the choir college and keep it at the Princeton location, vowed that his clients will continue their legal battle to oppose Rider University’s plans.
Rider’s Monday Announcement
In a written statement, Rider University President Gregory Dell’Omo claimed that school officials had done everything they could to save the choir college and that the goal has always been to maintain the college in Princeton.
“Given the enormous complexity of the transaction, it became increasingly clear that partnering with an outside entity, even one as well intentioned as Kaiwen, was not feasible on a viable timeline,” Dell’Omo said in the statement. “Although we determined not to extend the purchase sales agreement effective June 30, we have already begun conversations with Kaiwen’s leadership regarding meaningful areas for cooperation and collaboration.”
Rider and Kaiwen have agreed to still work together over the next three years on academic and artistic initiatives, Dell’Omo said.
Robert Schimek, the chairman of the Rider University Board of Trustees, claimed that the board and administration at the school appreciate the special connection Westminster has to Princeton, and said the trustees “went to extraordinary lengths” to seek a future on the existing Walnut Lane campus.
“Now that it is clear that transferring Westminster Choir College to an external partner is not possible, it is our continuing responsibility to enact a plan that serves the best interests of the entire university,” he said. “It is not financially feasible to allow Westminster to continue on its present course as a separate, fully operational campus seven miles apart from Rider’s Lawrenceville campus.”
The Westminster College of the Arts, which encompasses Westminster Choir College and the School of Fine and Performing Arts, will be based in Lawrence in 2020-21, Rider officials said. The Westminster Conservatory will continue to operate in multiple locations, officials said. The plan also proposes that Rider and Westminster explore the possibility of “retaining a footprint” on the Princeton campus that will be dedicated, in part, to conservatory activities, possibly offering academic and artistic opportunities for students.
“The plan has the potential to realize the goal of a strong and thriving Westminster College of the Arts that builds on both existing and proposed programs and facilities and most effectively serves 21st century students,” said Marshall Onofrio, dean of the Westminster College of the Arts. “It is my hope that students, faculty, staff, and alumni will unite around this opportunity and participate in creating a new chapter in Westminster Choir College’s illustrious history.”
Continued opposition by Westminster Choir College alumni and donors
Afran said his clients are glad Rider officials “came to their senses and realized they can’t sell an American college to a foreign dictatorship.” But he said Rider has no right to shut down the school and use the money for its own purposes. Thousands of people have donated millions of dollars to the choir college over the past 80 years, he said.
“Rider still appears determined to profit by selling the land of Westmisnter Choir College, while moving the programs to the Lawrence campus, where no proper facilities for vocal, opera or conducting training exist. Westminster Choir College is a specialized campus with world-class facilities, and offers a unique kind of training, none of which exists on the Lawrence campus. Rider has proposed to take the value of what has been built up over the last 80 years and keep it for itself while trying to pigeonhole the choir college into whatever space is left over on campus. This will amount to the dismemberment of Westminster Choir College. My clients will not allow that to happen and will continue to litigate to block the destruction of the choir college.”
Afran said his clients already prevailed regarding their claims that the college cannot be sold to a foreign government. “And we will continue the litigation to block the move of the college,” he said. “Rider University is a charitable steward of the college and has to respect that role. To move the college and sell the land to build new dining halls, dorms, and an athletic center is to violate the trust Rider assumed in 1991. I’m quite confident the courts will never allow that to happen.”
Rider officials said in the school’s written statement about moving the choir college to Lawrence that while the choir college continues to enjoy a world-class reputation, it has faced deficits throughout its history, including the era that preceded, and led to, its merger with Rider in 1992. “Since then, the university has made significant investments in the college, including improvements to facilities, support for performances and tours, and significant financial aid for students,” reads the statement.
Afran said Rider’s investments don’t allow the university to sell the choir college. He said when Rider acquired the choir college in 1991, the school agreed to cover any deficits of the college and to put money into the physical plant.
“That was the price Rider paid for the privilege of acquiring Westminster Choir College and protecting the choir college,” he said. “Rider does not have the right as a charitable steward to then be paid back. Besides, Rider has made tens of millions of dollars in tuition by using the Westminster trade name on the Lawrence campus.”
Afran said the Westminster College of the Arts program on the Lawrence campus has 300 students and brings in between $7 million and $9 million a year in tuition dollars. “Rider is literally taking in tens of millions of dollars a year by using the Westminster trade name,” he said. “Rider is not owed money by anyone.”
Afran argued that Rider officials have been deceiving the public when it comes to claims that no other school was interested in operating the choir college. “Ride did not pay for Westminster back in 1991, and no other college is going to pay Rider for Westminster,” Afran said. “Colleges in the United States will merge and affiliate. But Rider mistakenly seems to think this is all a giant bingo game in which colleges are up for auction. Colleges are charitable properties that merge with other colleges. Rider has been deceiving the public for two years on the issue. They sent a circular around offering to sell the college at market prices — that is why they got no offers from educational institutions, except for Kaiwen. They never offered to give the charitable stewardship of Westminster to other colleges. Had they done that, many institutions would want to affiliate Westminster, particularly when the choir college had a $2.5 million surplus in 2016 when they tried to sell it. That reflects a very profitable and stable college. Westminster never was in financial trouble then, but Rider was in 2016. That is why they were selling it then — to bail themselves out of trouble. And that is exactly what the state attorney general said they can’t use it for. They can’t use it for their own purposes.”
Afran also speculated that Rider has left the door open for Kaiwen to create a boarding school at the Princeton site some time in the future, or will possibly try to sell the property to the local school district.
“Anyone in the district who thinks the school board can buy it is very mistaken,” Afran said. “My clients will oppose the school district in the same way they opposed Kaiwen.”