By Stephen Neukam
A lawsuit against Rider was filed to the Superior Court of New Jersey by 71 students at Westminster Choir College (WCC) on Oct. 29 to stop the move of the college to the Lawrenceville campus by September 2020, according to Westminster Foundation attorney Bruce Afran.
The action was brought exclusively by WCC students from all classes and was facilitated mainly by junior sacred music and voice performance major Victoria Vazquez and freshman class president and musical education and sacred music major Jordan Klotz.
The 71-page document details the effects that Rider’s plan to close or move the school has had on WCC programs, fundraising and enrollment. Significant dips in class sizes, severely diminished donations and the lack of preparedness of the Lawrenceville campus to accommodate WCC’s needs are among the issues raised.
The complaint argues that Rider will violate the 1991 Merger Agreement and the 1935 Strong-Taylor trust, which is the product of a grant from Sophia Grant Taylor who endowed WCC with land and buildings which constitute the Princeton campus, if it relocates the college and attempts to sell the land.
Klotz said that the unique unity of the students at WCC is what made it possible to get almost a third of the student body involved in the lawsuit. He said that further amendments were coming to the complaint to incorporate even more students.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing right now without the immense unity of our student body,” said Klotz.
Vazquez was adamant that alternative options for the future of the choir college remained and must be examined.
“It is made clear that Rider University is not exploring all options and doing what is right for the institution,” said Vazquez. “Suggestions are shut down with responses such as ‘just deal with it’ and ‘this move is happening’ which is simply not true with three court cases currently going on that point to alternative options for the future of WCC.”
Afran, attorney for the Westminster Foundation, the alumni and faculty group working to stop the sale or movement of the school, said the new complaint revealed the “depth of rejection” that WCC students have toward the administration’s plans.
“Imagine getting that many college students together on any one issue,” said Afran, who admired the students’ resolve.
The complaint brings the total number of lawsuits attempting to block the sale or movement of the school to three — alumni and faculty from both campuses and the Princeton Theological Seminary have also brought action against the university.
Rider has moved to dismiss the alumni and faculty case on the grounds that they do not have the standing to challenge the university because they are not beneficiaries of the trust that created WCC, according to Afran. The new case brought by students, he said, removes the question of standing and will “force this matter to trial.”
“The purpose of this lawsuit is to make it clear that students are now the plaintiffs and this case cannot be made to go away by Rider,” said Afran. “Rider is going to have to face a trial now on the question of whether or not it can move this school or sell that property.”
Klotz said that while the position he is in is unique — a first-year college student suing his university — he was prepared to fight for WCC.
“When I came to WCC, I already had an immense passion and love for this institution because of the impact it had on me before I even came here,” said Klotz. “In a sense, I kind of knew what I was getting into when I came here and I was ready to stand up for the institution that I love a lot.”
However, he said the battle does add to his already-hectic schedule and placed some blame on the upper administration for the issues he is confronting.
“Before this situation began several years ago, WCC had the full complement of very large classes of students,” said Klotz. “The situation has been brought on by Rider University, frankly, for no reason.”
Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown said that the university had just recently been made aware of the new complaint but said the suit had nothing new from the other lawsuits.
“Rider continues to move forward with its work to bring the Westminster Choir College programs to Lawrenceville for the fall of 2020 and to take the steps necessary to secure a real future for WCC and Rider University,” said Brown. “Rider is a great university and we intend to continue to implement our Strategic Plan for the benefit of all of Rider, including WCC.”
Ultimately, Klotz said that many students at WCC are hoping that the consolidation will be stopped in court.
“The biggest thing that the students here are holding onto is that our case in court will prevail,” said Klotz.
Echoing the concerns raised in the complaint, Afran said that Rider was going to dismantle the quality of WCC in order to gain finances for the university.
“There are many ways to bring money to Rider University — they do not have to destroy the choir college,” said Afran. “President Dell’Omo and [Rider Vice President of Legal Affairs Mark] Solomon have been fixated on this for two and a half years and they can’t get off this track, which is simply going to run down an empty cliff.”
To read the full lawsuit, go to www.theridernews.com