By Shanna O’Mara and Gianluca D’Elia
A glimmer of hope may have finally appeared six months after President Gregory Dell’Omo announced that the Board of Trustees voted to sell Westminster Choir College (WCC) to a third party.
Dell’Omo informed the Rider community on Aug. 17 that the Board met and selected a potential partner that may acquire the music school, keeping the immense talent and rich history rooted in Princeton, where it has been since 1932.
The Board is currently negotiating a price and other factors with the suitor in an effort to reduce Rider’s projected $10 million deficit.
The selected finalist will “pretty much keep everything as is in terms of trying to keep as much of the staff — if not all of it — the administration, maintaining the Conservatory as well as continuing [education],” Dell’Omo said in an Aug. 30 interview.
This international partner who has had previous operations in the United States “came out head and shoulders over all the rest in terms of their professionalism, their sophistication, their resources, their commitment, their thoroughness,” Dell’Omo said.
Rider has been in contact with approximately 280 entities since the decision was announced. The process was led by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consulting firm hired by the university. About half of the Board members attended the final seven companies’ presentations, although all were invited, Dell’Omo said.
“Two things came out loud and clear,” Dell’Omo said. “One was the value of the brand of Westminster. We always knew it was really strong and well-respected, but this really validated it. To people who clearly understand this music school world, Westminster equates to the top. There’s no question that the Westminster name won’t go away. Secondly, Westminster in Princeton — that combination was off the charts.”
Although Westminster is set to stay in Princeton, some students are skeptical of the new possible partnership and frustrated by the limited amount of details provided so far.
“So basically, it has been announced that we will be taken over by an international partner that will keep us here, but no one knows who or when, and we are all scared about how vague the correspondence was,” said senior music education major Justin Farrell, who is active in the Coalition to Save WCC In Princeton. “We all just want to make sure that our school stays up, running and in Princeton for years and years to come.”
Faculty members at WCC share the same hope to continue working within the choir school toward continued tradition and future success.
“Faculty and staff are determined Westminster will prosper whether or not it’s with the newly proposed partner,” said Joel Phillips, professor of music theory and composition. “That said, on August 17, President Dell’Omo personally assured us the entity wishes to keep all Westminster programs and faculty, retain the Princeton campus and invest in the campus. If those statements are true, there might reason for cautious optimism.”
An independent group of students, parents, alumni and donors filed a lawsuit against Rider in late June, arguing that under the 1991 agreement through which Westminster became part of Rider, the university cannot legally sell the choir college’s campus.
The 1991 merger agreement requires Rider to “preserve, promote and enhance the existing missions, purposes, programs and traditions of WCC” and “ensure that the separate identity of WCC, its programs and activities and its faculty will be recognized, and the current and future WCC alumni will continue to be so identified.”
During the Aug. 17 meeting with Dell’Omo, Westminster faculty and staff also met with the university attorney, Mark Solomon. According to Phillips, Solomon said Rider “would place conditions on the buyer similar to those placed on Rider when it acquired Westminster.”
“On its face, the original merger agreement appears to forbid the sale under the present conditions, so the Westminster community took little comfort in Solomon’s statement,” Phillips said.
In response to the lawsuit this summer, university spokeswoman Kristine Brown said in a statement, “We firmly believe that the choir college’s legacy can best be achieved with an institution that is better positioned to make the necessary investments.”
Dell’Omo said last week that the lawsuit is currently “in limbo.”
“The group that filed that first lawsuit has changed attorneys, and there is a question of jurisdiction, and we’re going through some preliminary processes,” he said. “It’s been pretty quiet at this point in time.”
There are currently 58 freshmen enrolled at Westminster for Fall 2017, according to Brown. The total enrollment of Westminster Choir College this year is 275 students.
“[Enrollment this year] was actually better than we thought,” Dell’Omo said. “When we announced that we were going to begin this process, we knew that we would have to scale back the enrollment projections because some people may be turned off by the situation. Normally, we bring in a class of undergraduates between 80 to 90 freshman, so I think we budgeted for around 30 or 35, but we’re looking at about 60.”
Westminster is also anticipating 45 graduate students this semester, “which is usually about how many we bring in,” Dell’Omo said.
After initially contemplating moving choir college operations to the Lawrenceville property and selling the valuable land in Princeton, in March 2017 Dell’Omo announced plans to sell Westminster Choir College. Students, faculty and alumni held a 24-hour music marathon in January to protest any attempt to move or sell the 87-year-old institution.
Westminster’s choir program has been nominated for five Grammy Awards, winning two, and has performed with many famous orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.