Attorney General report weighs future of WCC and Princeton land

By Stephen Neukam

The Office of the Attorney General of New Jersey issued a supplemental report to the Superior Court of New Jersey on Nov. 19 that could pose a roadblock to Rider’s plans to sell the Princeton property that Westminster Choir College (WCC) occupies as a part of the university’s consolidation plan.

The report does not prohibit Rider’s ability to move WCC to its Lawrenceville campus under charitable trust law, which the university plans to do by September 2020. However, it does detail the potential consequences of such a move, particularly if Rider chooses not to no longer use the Princeton land for “the training of Christian music ministers and Bible study,” as required by the original land trust from the 1930s.

The report also does not take a position on whether Rider has violated the terms of the 1991 merger agreement but said that this issue does not implicate charitable trust law.

The Attorney General concluded in the report that the land and buildings in Princeton, rather than WCC as an institution, is a trust under the 1935 Taylor trust, which is the product of a grant from Sophia Strong Taylor who endowed WCC with land and buildings which constitute the Princeton campus.

If the land is not used to serve the purposes of Taylor’s trust, the report said, then the Princeton Theological Seminary would become the substitute trustee of the land “by the unequivocal terms of her [Taylor’s] gift.”

“The Attorney General determined that Taylor created the Trust to benefit the Presbyterian faith. … Evidence that faith motivated Taylor’s actions abounds,” the report noted.

The report further stipulates that Rider could conceivably undertake the purpose of the trust, but that this could also be done by the Princeton Theological Seminary or a third party institution.

However, the Attorney General concludes that “nothing in the Trust mandates that WCC be located on the Princeton campus.”

Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo, in a Nov. 21 email to the Rider community, said that he was “pleased that the Attorney General agrees with our legal position as to the legality of the move,” and that the university would move forward with its consolidation plan.

Bruce Afran, the attorney for the Westminster Foundation, the alumni and faculty group working to stop the sale or movement of the school, disagreed with Dell’Omo’s characterization of the report, saying that the Attorney General did not report that Rider could move WCC.

“The question of whether Rider can move the choir college has to be decided under the terms of the 1991 merger agreement,” said Afran. “The Attorney General says, ‘we are not taking a position on this.’ Which means the main issue in this case is unaffected by that letter. In fact, the Attorney General is endorsing, in effect, that the 1991 contract governs the question of whether the choir college can be moved.”

The report sets up a challenge to Rider’s plan to sell the Princeton campus. Dell’Omo has said he hopes that the proceeds from such a transaction would help fund the school’s $16 million to $20 million consolidation plan, he revealed in an interview with The Rider News on Oct. 28.

In addition, the Attorney General’s report warns that some of WCC’s endowed gifts may be subject to a further legal dispute, because they may be “inconsistent” with the proposed move to Lawrenceville. These gifts could include ones linked to specific buildings on the Princeton campus, support of events traditionally held on that campus, and “funds to specific programs (such as organ programs or sacred music programs) that may or may not survive the move to Lawrenceville,” according to the report.

The Attorney General’s report added that the office was “unable to determine whether a [legal] proceeding is needed with regard to these gifts until Rider’s post-move plans for the Princeton campus become clearer,” but that the office planned to continue to monitor the impact of the proposed move.

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