Passion takes the stage at Westminster teach-in

By Shanna O’Mara and Gianluca D’Elia

James Jordan, right, conducts the Lutkin Benediction — a piece that is traditionally sung at the end of most of Westminster’s choral performances — as a campus-wide teach-in about vocal techniques concludes on Oct. 16 at Bristol Chapel.

Westminster Choir College (WCC) faculty and students poured into Bristol Chapel this week to exemplify their unity while the Rider administration continues to negotiate with a potential third-party buyer for the music school.

Several professors canceled class to participate in the Princeton campus teach-in on the morning of Oct. 16.

“No one owns this university,” Joel Phillips, professor of composition and music theory, said during the event. “There are no shareholders, only stakeholders — students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff and friends.”

WCC faculty have demanded to be included in the conversation throughout this process. Along with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), they have expressed disappointment with being kept in the dark about the inevitable sale.

“Just like the Westminster faculty, the AAUP has been shut out of any role in the discussions with potential buyers,” according to an Oct. 13 statement released by the AAUP executive committee.

Matt Koller, ’96, said in an Oct. 3 blog post for the Coalition to Save WCC in Princeton that the purchaser may be the Guanghua Education Group, a for-profit international education institution based in China.

In response, university spokeswoman Kristine Brown said, “We understand how eager everyone is to learn more about the future of Westminster Choir College. However, we must maintain confidentiality to allow this process to progress with integrity, and therefore, we are not disclosing specific details at this time.”

A group visiting the Princeton campus on Oct. 3 was rumored to be from Guanghua, but Brown confirmed that the claim was false.

Elizabeth Scheiber, president of Rider’s faculty union, denounced any need to sell the choir college, which she said has 40 percent of Rider’s endowment but only 10 percent of Rider’s enrollment.

Dean of the Westminster College of the Arts Marshall Onofrio said the teach-in was successful in terms of bringing the WCC community together and igniting constructive conversations about the school’s future.

“I was very pleased at the generally positive tone of the activities,” he said in an Oct. 17 interview. “I thank the faculty, in particular, for their contributions to the vocal health session. I am sure it was helpful to the students. They had a great discussion.”

The teach-in consisted of a series of lectures and lessons by voice and conducting faculty about vocal techniques, as well as solo and ensemble singing.

“We listen to each other, we fight with each other, we dream together and we build programs together,” said Laura Brooks Rice, who has been a voice professor at WCC for 32 years, as she spoke to students about how the choir school helped her grow as a musician. “I credit this place for making me the musician and teacher I am today. I was only 29 when I started teaching here, and up to that point, I was only exposed to operatic literature, but not as much the great song works and choral literature. So I soaked it all in, and I want to continue to grow as a teacher in Princeton.”

Senior music major Deanna Sorge said, “It was a beautiful moment for everyone to come together and talk about our voices, our passions and sing as one. It allowed me to get advice from different faculty members, which is something we don’t get every day.”

Students voiced some of their frustrations about the process of finding a new parent institution for WCC after the teach-in. Part of the event was a “Sign Painting” session in Cullen Hall, according to the schedule.

Old WCC superstitions say it’s bad luck to walk on the grass in the middle of the academic buildings as a current student because it carries the curse of not graduating, but the urban legend did not stop a large group of nearly 100 students from gathering there with handmade protest signs outside Williamson Hall.

In a Facebook Live video, junior vocal performance major Corinne Berntsen stood at the edge of the lawn on the sidewalk, reluctant to join her friends.

“I’m not putting any sort of thing in between me and graduating,” she said with a laugh as she looked at the crowd from afar. Meanwhile, a friend next to her yelled out, “I’m gonna do it,” followed by a scream as she sprinted onto the grass, and another student ran onto the quad yelling, “I’m not gonna graduate!”

According to the AAUP release, “an administrator blocked a member of the professional press from the [teach-in].”

Onofrio said reporters were blocked from the event because university policy states that media are not allowed into academic buildings, and this was an academic event. However, Thomas Faracco, associate professor of voice, said in an Oct. 13 email to the Rider community that “the press is welcome at all events.”

Centraljersey.com reported that “The Princeton Packet sought to cover some of the teach-in but was stopped by Onofrio, who asked that all photographs of the event be deleted.”

Pamela Brown is a communication professor whose expertise lies in media law, including the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press. She said she was disappointed by the decision to restrict reporters from entering the venue.

“It is disheartening that an institution of higher learning would block media coverage of an event that is clearly intended to be informational and educational, the university’s very reasons for existing,” she said.

“I do not believe the administration would have blocked media access if the event had been one heralding the university’s accomplishments. I presume the administration believes it is doing the right thing by selling Westminster; therefore, it should not be afraid to have criticism and discussion of that decision reported in the public square.”

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