By Stephen Neukam and Lauren Minore
Students and organizers demonstrated before and after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s appearance at Rider University on Sept. 24 to challenge his environmental policies and object to the school’s decision to consolidate Westminster Choir College (WCC) to the Lawrenceville campus.
WCC students attended the event featuring Murphy, hosted by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, in hopes of giving hand-written letters to the governor to raise concerns over the choir college’s future.
However, Murphy left the event before the students were able to give him the letters. After a brief protest in the second-floor lobby of the Bart Luedeke Center (BLC,) students and organizers marched across campus to the Fine Arts Center (FAC.) Many students, wearing WCC apparel and holding signs that read “Keep WCC In Princeton” and “The Lord Bless Us and Keep Us in Princeton,” requested tours of the FAC to see where “this potential new place for our [students] is going to be,” according to sophomore voice performance major Alicia Barry.
“I am not sure [what to expect,]” said Barry, who had never been in the FAC before. “But, as far as I can see, it is not the most organized welcome.”
The group of students was initially denied entry into the building.
The group, totaling about 75 people, crowded the patio outside of the building around 1 p.m. and was granted tours in groups of about 20 to 25 to explore the building, according to Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Planning and Secretary to the Board Debbie Stasolla.
“[The students] were very respectful,” said Stasolla. “We were able to accommodate [the tours,] which was unexpected… I wound up spending a bunch of time with the students who stayed to listen to answers about their concerns.”
Senior acting major and tour guide Anna Meyer said she went to the FAC to give tours when she heard the WCC students wanted to go into the building.
Sophomore music education major Mary Fetterman felt that the voices of WCC students had not been heard in the decisions about the school’s future.
“A lot of us skipped classes to come [to Lawrenceville] to reach the governor who came to campus today and we were totally avoided,” said Fetterman. “I feel like [demonstrating] is what we have to do to get our voices heard.”
Fetterman said that the FAC was “not by any means capable of handling our choirs that we have.”
Scott Thompson, who said he was the grandson of John Finley Williamson, the founder of WCC in 1926, said he came from Tennessee to support the students and organizers.
“[We are] trying to get WCC to stay where it’s at,” said Thompson. “[Rider] does not have the facilities to take care of the quality of music that they teach at WCC. Personally, I am here to try to get the administration to work with the [Westminster Foundation] because they have good intent.”
While the university has shared commitments to “extensive renovations and additions to our existing facilities,” in an email from Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Donnajean Fredeen on Sept. 16, little specifics have been offered.
In a statement released to The Rider News, Associate Vice President for University Marketing & Communications Kristine Brown revealed plans for renovations to Omega House, Gill Chapel, Moore Library and the FAC. The planned changes to the FAC include a three-story addition.
“The plans for the Fine Arts project are being developed with input from 36 members of the Fine Arts Facility Working Group, which include faculty and staff from both campuses and professional architects, engineers, sound consultants and theater consultants,” said Brown.
Before Murphy attended the event, environmental activists congregated in front of the BLC to protest the governor’s environmental policies. Murphy’s proposed energy master plan, which outlines clean energy goals for the state by 2050, has received criticism from some who say it is too reliant on fossil fuels.
“We are calling on the governor to implement a moratorium on all fossil fuel infrastructure projects,” said Junior Romero, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, a non-governmental organization group which focuses on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water and corporate overreach. “If the governor wants to follow his climate rhetoric on the campaign trail… then he needs to follow through and stop climate polluters like these gas projects.”
In the 1970s and 1990s, former New Jersey Governors Brendan Byrne and Jim Florio issued similar orders to stop the development of projects in environmentally sensitive areas of the state.
“Governor Murphy can take action,” said Romero. “His generation did get us into this mess and he can reverse that.”