By Lauren Lavelle
The two lawsuits brought against Rider that attempt to block the sale of Westminster Choir College (WCC) to Kaiwen Education are still pending, but the students and alumni who filed them remain optimistic.
Most recently, the Princeton Theological Seminary filed a suit in February, stating it has, for over 80 years, had beneficiary rights to the land. The first lawsuit was filed in June 2017 by alumni, students, parents and donors.
“[The lawsuits] are both still very strongly in place, and they’re not going away,” said Constance Fee, president of the WCC alumni council.
The Rider News reached out to Anne Stewart, associate vice president for communication at the Princeton Theological Seminary, and she said the seminary had no further information regarding the lawsuit at this time.
According to Fee, the first lawsuit hit a roadblock when controversy within the Coalition to Save WCC in Princeton divided the group of plaintiffs in half. Currently, four parents and three students from the original lawsuit have filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, claiming Rider is not authorized to sell WCC under the 1991 Merger Agreement.
Attorney Eric Vaughan-Flam is now set to represent the parents and students, while attorney Bruce Afran will continue to represent the remaining alumni and donors.
Afran said that, although the injunction and original lawsuit are still pending, the groups have a firm case because Rider acquired WCC as a charitable gift, not something to profit from.
“The 1991 Merger Agreement says, ‘The resources of WCC are to be used for the purpose of WCC programming,’” he said. “The courts are going to recognize that Rider cannot sell WCC and pocket the money for its own programs. Rider is not protecting WCC like it agreed to, and I’m confident these cases will win.”
Matt Koller, ’95, a plaintiff in the June 2017 lawsuit as well as the recent injunction, is optimistic about the possible outcomes of the case.
“The courts have a long history of siding with parents and students when it comes to educational issues,” he said. “I think it is very clear here that Rider is doing things that they’re not legally allowed to do. I feel confident that the court is going to side with us.”
Koller, whose son is a current WCC student and another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the similarities between when Rider first acquired WCC and now are evident.
“Sometimes, we’d go to bed at night not knowing if we had a school the next morning,” he said.
When asked if the group’s intention is to keep WCC involved in a partnership with Rider, Koller was hesitant to respond, saying he would support that outcome if Rider’s administration was revamped.
“[President] Gregory Dell’Omo needs to go,” he said. “He’s probably the worst president that they could have chosen, and the Board of Trustees needs to be completely re-thought out as well.”
During the open forums on March 4 following the announcement of the transfer to Kaiwen Education, Dean of Westminster College of the Arts Marshall Onofrio commented on the pending suits.
“As with any lawsuit, I cannot comment on the basis or the merits of such, and it will be decided by the courts,” he said.
Unlike Koller and the rest of the plaintiffs, some members of the WCC community think the lawsuits bring unnecessary attention to the choir school.
“Most of the lawsuits that are happening right now are not going to be useful or helpful in the decision to block any sort of sale,” said junior voice performance major Corinne Bernsten. “A lot of people are very supportive of the lawsuits, and the students appreciate that we have support from several different communities but, when you file a lawsuit, you bring a lot of attention to the situation.”
Bernsten said people approach her every day asking about the status of WCC, with many assuming the school is closing.
“There are a lot of facts that people have spun out of control,” she said. “We need to receive more information about who our buyer is and exactly how they plan on helping our campus run because the lawsuit is only effective once we are officially going to be sold. We’re getting closer, but we’re not there yet.”
University spokeswoman Kristine Brown said, “We continue to progress with our work to finalize a binding contract with Kaiwen Education, which is a very detailed and complex process. The litigation is one component of that process which we will address.”