Rider looks to consolidate Westminster, faces new litigation

By Stephen Neukam

Following the collapse of the proposed $40 million sale of Westminster Choir College (WCC) to a Chinese company on July 1, Rider unveiled a consolidation plan aimed to integrate the music school into the Lawrenceville campus by September 2020 and keep it in Princeton for the current academic year.

The plan, briefly revealed on the day the sale was canceled, contained little information about the process behind reaching a “more fully integrated campus” in Lawrenceville.

Amidst backlash for the vagueness of the initial release of the plan, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo announced the creation of a Campus Transition Team to prepare for the consolidation, in an email to the university community on Aug. 7.

The team, chaired by Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen, consists of groups and sub-groups that are responsible for “all facets of the transition” and staffed by faculty, staff and students, according to the email. 

Nearly 130 members of the community were invited to participate in the transition team, according to the email, but a number of invitees declined the opportunity to serve in the Working Groups.

Professor of Music Composition and Theory at WCC and Rider Association of University Professors (AAUP) Assistant Grievance Officer Joel Phillips rejected his invitation to serve on the Fine Arts Renovation/Addition Facilities Committee because of the university’s lack of cooperation and transparency, according to his email to Vice President for Facilities and University Operations Michael Reca and others invited to the committee, which was released to The Rider News by the AAUP.

“Others must decide for themselves, but I will not lend my name to an endeavor that enables the administration to construct the mere appearance of collaboration in the complete absence of the bona fide item,” said Phillips via email. “Forbidden from recommending we avoid the iceberg, our charge is how best to arrange the deck chairs? No, thank you.”

Following the announcement of community engagement for the transition of campuses, a question of strategy remains. A common concern for those critical of the present consolidation plan is the ability of the Lawrenceville campus to house WCC facilities and the effects it would have on the school’s quality. 

Before the agreement to sell WCC to Kaiwen Education in 2017, Rider contemplated merging the campuses and even conducted four studies to analyze the hypothetical move since 1991. Ultimately, in the past, the administration found that the change would not be beneficial to the music school.

“It became pretty apparent early on that that option, of [consolidation], 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,” said Dell’Omo to The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017.

To date, no investment or infrastructure plan has been released by the university. In July, Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown revealed that plans for investment into facilities and equipment to accommodate WCC were presented to the Board of Trustees.

President Gregory Dell’Omo speaks to faculty, staff and students at Aug. 29 Convocation.

Since then, at the university’s convocation on Aug. 29, Dell’Omo publicly acknowledged the idea of selling a large portion of the Princeton campus to help fund investments.

“One of our goals is, in this migration, is to move the programs [to Lawrenceville] but sell the [Princeton] campus, and try not to sell the entire campus,” said Dell’Omo. “Our goal, if we can pull it off, is try to preserve about four to five acres of campus.”

Sophomore political science major and President of the Rider Democrats Matthew Schantin, who felt that the resources the university put into the WCC sale could have been used in better ways, said that once the school was faced with not being able to complete the transaction, it made the right decision for both campuses to consolidate.

“I think it was a good decision [for the administration] to cut their losses once they realized the sale was not going to go through,” said Schantin. “Ultimately, Westminster had to be dealt with and the administration did what they could to make the best decision for the university as a whole, not just one campus or the other.”

The proposed move still faces legal battles. In a new 70-page complaint filed to the New Jersey Superior Court on August 9, the Westminster Foundation, the alumni and faculty group working to stop the sale or movement of the school, and added faculty from both Rider and WCC, requested that the court find a new fiduciary to operate WCC or separate it from Rider and return it to independent operation.

“To move the school violates Rider’s duty as the charitable steward of WCC and it will destroy [the school],” said Bruce Afran, attorney for the Westminster Foundation. “There are no facilities at Rider’s campus to house Westminster and its faculty, students and its programs.”

Brown characterized the new complaint as “deeply flawed,” and said she felt that the latest action in court was another attempt to “obstruct the goal of our strategic plan to find the right path forward for Westminster and Rider.”

Dell’Omo remained committed to the transition and expressed optimism about both Rider and WCC’s future.

“This is an exciting moment and opportunity for our institution,” said Dell’Omo in a written statement. “However, it is unfortunate that there is ongoing opposition to this new vision, including from some of our faculty who are part of the… lawsuit.”

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