By Stephen Neukam
This story was updated on Nov. 7 to reflect Dean Marshall Onofrio’s denial of comments made by Victoria Vazquez.
Roaming the basement of Talbott Library at Westminster Choir College (WCC), musical education and sacred music major Jordan Klotz flipped through the delicate history of the school — a signed picture from Eleanor Roosevelt, photos from the choir’s trips to Cuba and Pakistan in the 1940s and rare snapshots of the school’s founder, John Finely Williamson.
Down a flight of winding stairs from the library’s lobby, countless files of sheet music fill the ground floor shelves. A library employee proudly mentions that it is an honor to work around such material.
As the sun set in Princeton, Klotz and junior sacred music and voice performance major Victoria Vazquez stood in the top section of Bristol Chapel to listen to their peers’ choir rehearsal. In between pieces, many students wave to the top.
While Klotz and Vazquez maneuver around the campus, they seem to chronicle every place and piece of history along the way.
It’s a sobering walk, one filled with conversation about a rich past and an unknown future.
The fragile material in the basement of Talbott Library is scheduled to be moved to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus in September 2020 — along with the rest of the school.
The decision to consolidate came after the university was unable to sell the choir college to Kaiwen Education, a Chinese company.
Now, some students, staff and faculty at WCC face a battle to keep the school in Princeton. The fight has culminated in three separate lawsuits against Rider, the latest of which was a 71-student complaint that was facilitated by Klotz and Vazquez.
The suit, which has climbed to 76 students, according to Vazquez, was filed on Oct. 29 in the Superior Court of New Jersey.
The idea for the newest lawsuit was originated by Vazquez. She said it began with a Google search for the Westminster Foundation [WF].
The foundation, which is the alumni and faculty group working to stop the sale or movement of the school, is also involved in a faculty and alumni lawsuit against Rider.
“I Googled [WF President] Constance Fee and I called her and I said, ‘What’s going on? You do not know who I am but I want to know the truth,’” said Vazquez.
Vazquez said that she knew about WF prior to her call to Fee, but that Westminster College of the Arts Dean Marshall Onofrio told students that the foundation “was run by crazy alumni and that we should not pay it any attention and we shouldn’t be on Facebook and we should focus on our studies, so I did that.”
On Nov. 6, Onofrio published a response on Rider’s website and WCC social media and said he has not denigrated WCC alumni and denied Vazquez’s claim.
“I hope that all members of the greater Westminster community with whom I have interacted over the past 13 years would attest to the respect I have continually shown to all constituents, including our alumni,” said Onofrio. “My relationship with the Westminster Choir College alumni has remained collegial and professional throughout my time at Rider University. I have cited on many occasions their dedication, their reputation in the international music community and the extraordinary number of them who contribute each year to the College.”
Vazquez emphasized that she was not quoting Onofrio, but characterizing statements he has made to students in the past.
However, her suspicions rose when she continued to go to meetings with Onofrio and the things he said did not add up, according to Vazquez.
That was when, in September, Vazquez started to put together names for the lawsuit and by the end of that month had 30 students on board. After a meeting on Nov. 24, the students had increased the list to 71.
In the basement of Seabrook Hall, one of WCC’s residence complexes, Klotz and Vazquez toured the numerous practice rooms utilized by the residents. Some contain pianos, organs and others are specialized for noise cancellation. As Vazquez sang loudly in a small, glassed-in practice area (which could be heard only dully from the outside), Klotz warmed up an organ and made a quick comment about the lack of maintenance on the instrument.
Later, walking up a flight of stairs in Williamson Hall, Vazquez mused over the way sunlight entered the top floor and reflected all the way to the first and pointed out a large black piano in a small rehearsal area.
These are the places that students do not want to leave behind. The facilities, the students say, are not in the plans to be recreated in Lawrenceville on a reasonable timeline, if at all.
The role that they have played in the fight for the school is daunting for both students — strapped by large course loads, practices, jobs, travel and the everyday life of a college student, they admitted it adds a large amount of stress. However, the alternative, watching the school be consolidated, was unbearable for the pair.
“It was more overwhelming feeling hopeless like I couldn’t help the situation,” said Vazquez. “The last two years have been really hard emotionally.”
The emotions of the situation are tough to deal with. Vazquez said that it was not uncommon for students and faculty to cry in class.
The damage of the relationship between some of the students, staff and faculty and the administration is extensive, according to Klotz. He said the university would have to do “serious work” to regain the trust of the students.
He related the situation to WCC’s motto: Spectemur agendo, or “let us be judged by our deeds.” The administration, he said, will be judged by its actions.
“The administration’s actions don’t always match its words,” said Klotz. “I don’t think that their words carry any weight because the things that they do don’t match them.”
On Nov. 1, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo sent an email to the university community to deny that the school is in discussion with a different educational institution to take over WCC. Klotz said that maybe the administration’s history of flip-flopping on statements should be applied to that denial.
“Maybe there really is [a separate institution],” said Klotz.
Klotz said that the administration saw WCC as a “money chest.”
“Princeton is a town that is landlocked and people will pay $20 million or more for this property,” said Klotz.
The two students said they were confident they would prevail in court.
However, despite what the outcome of the situation may be, both students said they were more worried about the relationships and community that live on the Princeton campus.
It is a community that allows Vazquez to greet every person she passed by name and enables Klotz to know who is rehearsing where and when. It is the people, Klotz said, that matter the most.
“It is an invaluable thing to have this community together because we are resilient,” said Klotz. “I believe that if we move [to Lawrenceville] we would try really hard to recreate what we have [in Princeton]. I just do not know how successful we would be.”