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More than 70 students at Westminster Choir College sue Rider University to stop sale of Princeton campus

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Another lawsuit has been filed to prevent Rider University from selling the Westminster Choir College campus in downtown Princeton.

More than 70 students at the choir college have signed on to the lawsuit filed in Mercer County Superior Court on Tuesday that seeks to block the sale of the Westminster campus and keep the choir college in Princeton. The students are being represented by Princeton lawyer Bruce Afran.

The lawsuit argues that as a charitable steward of Westminster, Rider has the obligation under a 1991 agreement to continue the operation of the choir college in “substantially the same format and location as has traditionally existed,” unless Rider can demonstrate that a move is necessary to preserve the charitable purposes and mission of the choir college.

In July, Rider officials announced that the choir college and its students, faculty, performance training and programs will be moved to the Lawrenceville campus beginning in September of 2020. Rider officials have argued that the school made every effort to find another school to take over Westminster, but had no takers. Rider wanted $40 million for the school and Princeton campus.

The lawsuit claims that Rider “has not demonstrated and cannot demonstrate” that it can support the move of Westminster to the Lawrenceville campus, the re-branding of this institution, the changes to its conservatory training program that will arise from this move, and the “loss and wastage” of Westminster’s specialized facilities.

The lawsuit claims that in 2016, Westminster had a $2.5 million surplus and also had surpluses for the previous two years, and that there was not a financial emergency at Westminster that would have caused the campus to stop operating as a separate campus. “At all times since 1991, Westminster’s educational and charitable mission, as it existed at the time Rider became the charitable steward, has remained fully capable of performance and has remained in substantially unchanged demand by the educational, religious and performance communities that Westminster was intended to serve,” reads the lawsuit, which also argues that Rider University has benefited materially from its accession to charitable stewardship over Westminster.

“Rider acquired all or most of its present academic capacity in music, liturgical music training, conducting, instrumental training and performance training, music management and allied areas of study, and in music theatre, from such affiliation that commenced in 1992 and it was on the strength of these additional offerings, including graduate offerings, that the State of New Jersey awarded Rider the status of ‘university,'” reads the lawsuit, which also argues that Rider’s association with Westminster enabled the school to make use of the ‘Westminster’ trademark and create a new school called the Westminster College of the Arts that accepts about 300 students each year who are not a part of Westminster Choir College, but whose majors in music theatre and art are offered at Rider under the Westminster trademark.

The lawsuit argues that since December 2016, Rider University has caused the destruction of Westminster Choir College through a plan to sell the college to a Chinese government-controlled commercial entity. The lawsuit claims that as a result of Rider’s attempt to sell Westminster, the choir college now has only two full-sized classes and has two classes that are much smaller. Westminster’s graduate program enrollment has been reduced by about two-thirds, according to the lawsuit.

“The now-defunct plan to sell this college caused material wastage to
Westminster’s goodwill, its mission and the ability to carry out its purposes, reputation and function, the loss of virtually all donations to Westminster and two-thirds of its traditional enrollment in the past two classes,” reads the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Rider’s plan to sell Westminster resulted in a reduction of the incoming class for 2018-19 from 95 undergraduate students to fewer than 25 students. The lawsuit also claims that for the current school year, only 35 undergraduate students and 18 graduate students have accepted admission to Westminster.

“The loss of student enrollment is solely and exclusively the result of Rider’s
announced intent since 2016 to close or move Westminster and from its now-abandoned plan to sell Westminster to Kaiwen,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also argues that Rider lacks the proper facilities to operate Westminster on its main campus in Lawrenceville. “Rider has announced no plans to construct or replicate any of Westminster’s existing facilities at its Lawrence campus, except that it said it will expand Gil Chapel but has produced no development or engineering plans even for this singular expansion,” reads the lawsuit. “Rider has announced that it will make certain very minimal changes consisting of expanding Gil Chapel, building 16 practice rooms and providing temporary office space to Westminster faculty, but no architectural plans, engineering drawings, site plan applications or any other indicia of the development of facilities to house Westminster’s programs and specialized needs have been disclosed or identified by Rider in connection with the proposed move of Westminster and none that would even remotely replicate Westminster’s facilities that have been used for 85 years for Westminster’s exclusive and specialized functions.

According to the lawsuit, Rider has produced a concept plan to include a small addition to its fine arts building, a facility to be used by Rider’s existing music, theatre, art programs, but not dedicated to Westminster Choir College or its programming.
“In sum, Rider intends to force Westminster to relocate a nearly 100-year old specialized campus with unique training and educational facilities into Rider’s existing facilities without construction or development of new, additional or comparable facilities to accommodate Westminster’s conservatory mission and training,” reads the lawsuit. “Following the move, Westminster will lose all of its independent structures and independent facilities that are essential to the intensive and continuous training of conservatory students and will be forced to change from an independent conservatory to a shared facility with a conventional collegiate music and art department that does not provide conservatory training and that will not provide the isolated and segregated environment for conservatory music students that is essential to all music conservatories.”

The suit also argues that donors contributed funds that were intended for the future use of the Princeton campus and new facilities by Westminster students as part of a master plan.

Westminster’s Princeton campus was made possible by Sophia Strong Taylor, who endowed the school with 23 acres of land and buildings in 1935. The Strong Taylor grant was subject to certain conditions, according to the lawsuit, including that Westminster must continue to train ministers of music in the evangelical Christian tradition. Strong Taylor gave her gift to Westminster with the condition that the school continue to carry out its purposes and activities. If Westminster ceased to pursue that purpose, the land would become Princeton Theological Seminary’s property, according to the lawsuit.

Princeton Theological Seminary has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the sale of the Westminster campus in Princeton.

Officials for the Princeton Public School have denied rumors that the school district is still trying to purchase the Westminster campus or have the municipality purchase it for them and avoid another bond referendum.

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.

3 Comments

  1. Rider’s sole interest, as shown by its attempts to sell Westminster Choir College to other schools for many millions of dollars and then to the Chinese steel company, is filling the hole in its own budget. The fact that there are no concrete plans or applications to make even the rudimentary additions it claims it will build to accommodate Westminster’sprogram, is further evidence that Rider has no interest in maintaining Westminster’s current program. Meanwhile, Rider has made a number of reductions to Westminster’s “liveability” environment, such as closing the student store, reducing dining hall hours, and removing Westminster merchandise from Rider’s own student store. The drumbeat of announcements about closing the Princeton campus, including emails from the Rider admissions office sent to high schools around the state, is prompting current students to rmake plans to transfer to other schools and discouraging prospective students from applying to Westminster. Even if the litigation to preserve the Princeton campus is successful, Westminster will be a shadow of its former, illustrious self.

  2. Thank you for the article. It is also important to note that Rider used the WCC merger to help gain University status and that Rider wants to get it’s hands on the Princeton property to bolster their $$. Kelly Thompson Smeltzer ’74.

  3. Well done! Now share the experience with the tenants of 20 Nassau, small businesses and therapists, who will be evicted to build a hotel to further deracinate this town. This sale also needs to be blocked.

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