Board votes to find WCC new partner

By Shanna O’Mara and Thomas Regan

 

Hundreds attended an early morning protest in front of North Hall as university administrators met to make their long-awaited decision on whether to sell Westminster’s campus in Princeton. A crowd of students, faculty, alumni and families from both campuses surrounded the building with posters and banners. As adminstrators entered the building, the crowd sang Peter Lutkin’s “Benediction.”

Protesters stood outside of North Hall singing Lutkin’s “Benediction,” as members of Rider’s Board of Trustees marched into the building to decide the future of Westminster Choir College (WCC). Later in the day, the solemn tone shifted as the community received hopeful news that their school may be able to stay in its historic location.

After nearly six hours in North Hall, President Gregory Dell’Omo announced that the university intends to find a buyer for WCC, later saying at a town hall on the Princeton campus that Rider’s “leading preference” is to find a suitor that will leave the choir college in its current location.

“Our first preference is trying to keep [Westminster] here [in Princeton],” Dell’Omo said. “That doesn’t mean it’s the sole preference.”

At the student town hall on the Princeton campus, students poured into Hillman Hall with a jubilant aura, as many donned smiles and the room echoed with laughter. After months of concern publicly exchanged on social media, students were seemingly relieved by a decision that does not immediately threaten the college’s Princeton culture.

“It really was the best possible outcome,” senior voice performance major Emily Rosoff said. “Our worst fear was that the school would get shut down.”

Dell’Omo said the board made this decision with Rider’s larger strategic plan in mind, adding that proceeds from a sale of WCC would be directed toward new academic programs, facilities and Rider’s issue of affordability.

“Overall, the university community should be excited by this because this will give us an opportunity to grow the university once again,” he said. “We know the problems Rider University has — affordability, facilities and having the right program mix. If we cannot solve those three problems, and this strategy will, then we’re sort of behind the eight ball.”

While Howard McMorris, former Board of Trustees member, was “pleased and relieved” with the final decision, he said it would have been wiser to come to a conclusion sooner so that the next step could begin.

“I wish they had done that five months ago so we could have started finding an affiliation partner sooner,” he said.

Associate voice professor Thomas Faracco agreed. “The unknown was just awful for everyone,” he said. “I am concerned what the next year will bring. I’m uncertain about what will happen to students on campus. I don’t know how that will affect our desirability for another suitor. It’s a scary proposition because they can’t guarantee what will happen after next year.”

The board hopes to evaluate all potential buyers, hopefully coming to a decision before the start of the fall 2018 semester.

If a buyer is not chosen in that time frame, the president admitted his administration cannot guarantee that classes will still be offered in Princeton. Many students then expressed concerns of continuing their education at WCC, but Dell’Omo remedied this fear by saying he is “very confident” an organization will buy the school “fairly quickly.”

Chair of the Board of Trustees Michael Kennedy said that the maintained quality of education is important in the search.

“Our guiding principle is to make it work [for the benefit of students,]” Kennedy said. “I can’t stand here today and tell you this is exactly the answer, but I can tell you that’s what is guiding us.”

Students’ positive emotions quickly shifted throughout the town hall, as several seemed dissatisfied with the answers to questions about the security of their programs if a new institution purchases the choir college.

Abigail Bloss, a junior music major, said, “I think it’s important that [administrators] communicate with students because we’re investing a large amount of money in this institution… I think they have the best intentions. I just think they don’t have an extensive development on the matter, as the decision was just made hours ago.”

Dell’Omo answered most of these inquiries with similar answers, explaining these issues will be talked about in negotiations with potential buyers, but he said he could offer no guarantees.

University spokesperson Kristine Brown said “the lines of communication will be open” during this time of deliberation.

“These are hard decisions,” Dell’Omo said in an interview with The Rider News. “They’re not very popular with people, but hopefully people will see what the long-term goal is and begin to understand and accept it.”

The decision will be made by the Board of Trustees after evaluating all options, Dell’Omo said. Part of the study, according to the president, will be ensuring Rider will be able to overcome the initial loss in enrollment.

“We plan, as we make this transition, for the decline of Westminster enrollment,” Dell’Omo said. “That is in our five-year model. The key is if we’re able to find a partner or a successor university who buys the campus, that gives us net proceeds that we can use to address some of the short-term deficit situations we have at the university. Plus, we lose the cost of running Westminster. That then triggers greater borrowing potential that we have.

“So you take the net proceeds of the sale of Westminster campus and programs, combined with the borrowed money from the marketplace, that generates a significant amount of new revenue for the university. That does not just go to the deficit reduction, but it allows us to begin to invest in new programs, facility upgrades and more scholarship money.”

Faracco said he appreciated the open discussions with the president but was disheartened when Dell’Omo did not specify how involved faculty will be in the next step.

“That didn’t sit very well with me,” Faracco said. “I understand we can’t make the decision, but we really want to have some faculty present on an ongoing basis. That’s my mission — to make sure that happens.”

Dell’Omo expressed optimism for Rider’s future.

“In five years’ time, we’re actually projecting that we’ll have full-time undergraduate enrollments surpassing our peak year of 2009 and get us back on that growth strategy,” he added.

Dell’Omo said many other higher institutions have evaluated the potential benefit of selling assets and consolidating to improve programs that yield jobs in high demand.

“What we’re going through is no different than what 90 percent of the industry is going through,” he said. “Universities are all facing this problem. We’re just a little bit ahead of the curve right now in that we’re trying to be proactive and address these problems before they become major, major problems.”

This isn’t even the first time Rider has explored this option.

In 1992, Rider College bought the Westminster campus after a brief period of affiliation. On April 13, 1994, Rider assumed university status with Westminster Choir College, the School of Music of Rider College as its fifth school. That same year, then-President J. Barton Luedeke began exploring the option of merging the two campuses into one in Lawrenceville.

“This has been done five or six times since 1992 when we took it over,” Dell’Omo said. “The last, most detailed study was in 2006. A lot of the data really hasn’t changed that much, but what has changed is the economics, in terms of the value of the property here in Princeton and the level of industry-wide challenges that higher education is going through.”

McMorris, who served on the board from 1979 to 1992, saw the benefits of the Rider-Westminster merger firsthand.

“I was a trustee when the choir college almost disappeared, and I’m grateful Rider saved the college,” he said. “In the ’90s, Rider spent more money than they thought they would have to to keep Westminster alive. That should not be forgotten. Now Westminster is in better financial condition than Rider is, but Rider saved them when no one else would.”

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