A look back at Westminster Choir College and its history with Rider

By Lauren Minore and Stephen Neukam 

The Rider News’ coverage of the consolidation of Westminster Choir College to the Lawrenceville campus is ongoing. To provide context for our readers, we have created a timeline of noteworthy events in the development of our new series called, The Westminster Report. 

1920: Westminster Choir was established by John Finley Williamson at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio.

1926: The Westminster Choir School was founded.

1929: Westminster Choir College (WCC) was established and moved to Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.

1932: WCC moved to Princeton, New Jersey. 

June 28, 1991: WCC and Rider College agree to “enter an affiliation and merge in order to promote the maintenance and continuation of their standards of excellence in education,” according to the merger document. On this date, the two not-for-profit institutions officially merged. 

2007: Former Rider President Mordechai “Mort” Rozanski announced the establishment of Westminster College of the Arts, “to successfully integrate Rider’s commitment to the fine and performing arts on its Lawrenceville and Princeton campuses through the WCC in Princeton and the School of Fine and Performing Arts in Lawrenceville,” according to Rider’s website. The musical theater major and music major were moved to the Lawrenceville campus and incorporated into the Fine and Performing Arts program. The music major was later relocated back to Princeton.

Oct. 29, 2015: Layoff notices were issued and the closure of twelve undergraduate majors and a graduate program were announced. The university said the layoffs and closures would save Rider $2 million annually in the face of a $7.6 million financial deficit and a $216 million operating budget. This affected faculty and programs on both the Lawrenceville and Princeton campuses. Layoffs were averted when the entire university faculty agreed to forgo a planned wage increase. 

Dec. 1, 2016: At a presentation in WCC’s Talbott Library, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo announced, for the first time publicly, that measures being considered were shutting down WCC’s campus in Princeton, selling the property and consolidating all students, faculty and staff to the Lawrenceville campus. At the time, Dell’Omo stressed that campus consolidation was merely a study and that he hoped to reach a decision by February 2017. “This is a multi-faceted analysis we’re doing,” Dell’Omo said to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re trying to hit every angle of the stakeholders — past, current and future — to figure out what the impact [of the one-campus model] would be. We’re talking to some people about it and there’s been past donors who are in support of it. We’re trying to gather all the feedback we can.”

Mar. 28, 2017: Dell’Omo officially announced the university intended to sell WCC with the hope of keeping the campus in Princeton and that the administration decided against consolidating the two campuses. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he said, “It became pretty apparent early on that that option, of moving things out of Princeton into Lawrenceville, regardless of the buildings we’d build and the facilities and so forth, there just was a sense that would not serve the Westminster Choir College.” 

April 19, 2017: The AAUP announced a vote of no confidence against Dell’Omo and his administrative team — for the first time in Rider’s history. Key decisions, such as “the decision to institute layoffs within weeks of taking office in 2015, his refusal to truly negotiate with the AAUP and his decision to close Westminster Choir College after the 2018 academic year,” were major factors in the AAUP’s passing of the no-confidence vote, according to a union press release. In response, Dell’Omo said, “Despite my disappointment in the result of today’s vote by the AAUP faculty union, I remain deeply committed to working with AAUP leadership to find a solution that ensures Rider’s long-term stability and competitiveness.”

Aug. 17, 2017: Dell’Omo announced that the Board of Trustees selected a potential buyer to acquire WCC. The process was facilitated by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consulting firm hired by the university, which evaluated over 280 entities interested in buying WCC. Dell’Omo did not reveal the name of the finalist or any specific qualifications at the time of the announcement, which prompted backlash from many members of the WCC community. 

Feb. 21, 2018: Dell’Omo revealed that Kaiwen Education was the buyer set to acquire WCC. Kaiwen operated two K-12 academies in Beijing. Until December 2017, Kaiwen was formerly known as Jiangsu Zhongtai Bridge Steel Company and it specialized in installing, manufacturing and transporting steel bridges. 

March 27, 2019: The New Jersey Attorney General’s office submitted a report to the New Jersey Superior Court about the state’s position on the sale. The Attorney General was unable to make a recommendation on the sale and blamed Rider’s “six month delay in producing documents and eventual production of documents so heavily redacted as to hamper review.” 

July 1, 2019: Rider announced that the sale to Kaiwen Education would be canceled. The university cited the “enormous complexity of the transaction” as the reason the sale would not continue. The same day, Rider announced a plan to consolidate WCC to the Lawrenceville campus. The initial announcement offered no specifics on how the move would happen. The only explicit detail was that WCC would be on the Rider campus in September 2020. Subsequent to the decision, the notices of possible WCC faculty layoffs that were issued in October 2018 were rescinded. 

Aug. 7, 2019: The administration announced the creation of the Campus Transition Team to facilitate the consolidation. In an email to the university community, Dell’Omo said that almost 130 students, staff and faculty would be invited to participate in the Working Groups. The transition team would be “responsible for all facets of the transition.” In the announcement, Dell’Omo asserted his commitment to transparency and information.

 Sept. 24, 2019: WCC community protested the consolidation on the Lawrenceville campus. WCC students attended an event at Rider that featured New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. The students then tried to enter the Fine Arts Center (FA) but were denied entry by Public Safety officials. The students were required to have a tour guide chaperone them through the building.

Oct. 6, 2019: Dell’Omo and other administration officials held a private meeting with WCC students on the Princeton campus. At the meeting, the president revealed that the cost of consolidation would run between $16 million and $20 million. Additionally, this was the first time actual plans for renovations and additions to the Lawrenceville campus were announced publicly. Vice President for Facilities and University Operations Michael Reca detailed renovations and additions to Gill Chapel, FA and Omega House. 

Here is what to expect: Rider has remained steadfast in its commitment to the consolidation plan. Renovations and additions are set to break ground as early as May. With that said, litigation in opposition to consolidation continues. On Aug. 9, the Westminster Foundation, the alumni and faculty group working to stop the sale or movement of the school, added faculty from both Rider and WCC to a complaint to the New Jersey Superior Court and requested that the court finds a new fiduciary to operate WCC or separate it from Rider and return it to independent operation. The litigation to halt the move is pending.

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