Regional ranking drops after unusual year

Critics denounce Rider's debt

By Shanna O’Mara

While Rider has dropped in the regional rankings, Westminster Choir College (WCC) has earned another badge of recognition. In light of recently released financial details, the faculty union continues to dispute the need to sell what it calls one of the university’s top assets.

Since the August announcement that Rider may have found a third-party buyer of the choir school, those in the university community and beyond have been demanding transparency in regard to the unnamed international entity.

On Oct. 23, President Gregory Dell’Omo said Rider’s term sheet should be completed by late November and the contract’s terms finalized by January. However, in a Dec. 4 email to the Rider community, Dell’Omo said the university and the partner have not yet agreed on a term sheet, but that once this is accomplished, the two institutions will begin to draft a binding transfer agreement.

“The negotiations remain confidential and both Rider and the partner have committed to maintaining their confidentiality until we are further along in the process,” Dell’Omo wrote.

The administration has continuously cited financial troubles as the motive behind working to sell WCC, eliminate courses and freeze faculty wages.

Perhaps as a result, the university’s ranking on the U.S. News’ Best Colleges list fell from No. 23 to No. 34 in the Regional Universities North category this year.

Since last December, Dell’Omo has claimed that Rider will face a $7 million deficit in 2018 fiscal year if operating costs do not reduce and enrollment does not increase. The university has been working alongside the consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers to find a solution to the looming debt. However, Rider’s recently released independent financial audit is now being analyzed, with the faculty union denouncing any notion of debt.

In 2016, the form shows a loss of nearly $4.6 million in net assets. Through June 2017, there was an improvement of $10 million, net assets resting at just over $5.5 million.

University spokeswoman Kristine Brown said the AAUP analysis of the data “misses some important information.”

“The overall net asset increase came 100 percent from non-operating sources. All of that improvement came from increased endowment values and lower post-retirement benefits obligations, neither of which produces cash that is readily available to invest now.”

Operating cash flow increased by $1.4 million from 2016 to 2017, now totaling just under $3.7 million. Tuition revenue rose by $2.1 million, 2.2 percent, while financial gains from student housing and dining costs fell by $4.1 million.

“It is certainly the case that 2017 was a much better year financially than 2016 and that the claims of pending fiscal doom have turned out once again to be false,” American Association of University Professors (AAUP) President Elizabeth Scheiber said in a Nov. 17 statement.

Brown said, “Operating cash flow did improve slightly as AAUP notes, but in both 2016 and 2017, it was less than the amount of debt service the university paid on its bonds — a relationship the university’s auditors noted as a negative.”

Because the 2017 numbers were calculated in June, the concessions made by the AAUP during the August negotiations, over $6 million, are not accounted for.

While Rider’s regional ranking fell, Westminster’s quality of music education earned the university a top spot on the Great Value Colleges list. It ranked No. 13 in the nation among 60 “bang-for-your-buck” colleges for undergraduate music majors by greatvaluecolleges.net.

With information from the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator Database as well as the U.S. News and World Report, these ranking were determined by evaluating criteria such as affordability, competitiveness, awards and recognition, graduate success and average class size. Schools providing “extensive individual attention” received the most points in the latter category.

WCC offers a 6-to-1 student to faculty ratio, with performers often receiving one-on-one instruction.

“That individualized education is what sets this school apart,” Jeffrey Halpern, the AAUP’s chief negotiator, said. “You cannot make significant profit off Westminster and keep it what it is. To make money, you’d have to increase enrollment and class size, but then the quality of talent and prestige would suffer.”

Halpern also pointed out that increasing enrollment would demand housing construction projects and would force the study body of 320 undergraduates to share valued resources.

On-campus facilities include 21 pipe organs, 165 pianos, three piano labs, 61 practice rooms, four performance venues, a music computing center and a voice lab.

Jamie Weitl, communication manager for greatvaluecolleges.net, noted that the location of Rider’s Lawrenceville and Princeton campuses are conveniently between New York City and Philadelphia, “doubling attainable performance and employment opportunities for music majors.”

While Westminster students prepare for an Evening of Readings and Carols set to be awe crowds this weekend, the AAUP continues pushing to file a grievance in light of the 33 WCC faculty layoff notices sent out last month. Brown, however, insists that selling the choir school may be the best option for the university.

“The key point is that Rider needs to build unrestricted operating resources to make much-needed investments in people, programs, scholarships and facilities,” she said. “The difficult steps we’ve taken, including the WCC transition, will help Rider accelerate the pace of reinvestment in the university.”

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