Dell’Omo details Westminster decisions in exclusive interview
By Stephen Neukam
In midst of the looming consolidation of Westminster Choir College (WCC) to the Lawrenceville campus, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo disclosed that the university has begun the process of talking to a potential buyer for the property that the choir college currently occupies in Princeton in an interview with The Rider News on Oct. 28.
Dell’Omo, flanked by Vice President of Legal Affairs and General Counsel Mark A. Solomon and Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown, declined to disclose the identity of the potential purchaser.
In July, after the sale of WCC between Rider and Chinese company Kaiwen Education was canceled, Brown revealed that the Board of Trustees had discussed the possibility of selling the land that WCC currently occupies. In subsequent public appearances, Dell’Omo revealed that the sale of the property was a possibility but had not yet confirmed that a potential buyer had been found.
The sale of the land is a key component of the consolidation plan, which is projected to cost between $16 million and $20 million. Dell’Omo admitted that the land sale would not match up with the timeline for planned renovations and additions to the Lawrenceville campus, but said the goal was to “pay ourselves back with the sale of that [land].”
Instead, the president said the university would initially have to pay for the consolidation in other ways.
“We’re going to have to borrow some money, we have some reserves and we have a line of credit as well as some bartering capacity to look at the funds we need right away to begin the construction on campus,” said Dell’Omo, detailing other payment methods.
Solomon said that he anticipated litigation when the university attempts to sell the property but was adamant about Rider’s right to sell it.
Bruce Afran, the attorney for the Westminster Foundation, the alumni and faculty group working to stop the sale or movement of the school, voiced objection to Solomon’s certainty.
“Rider will have no chance of selling this property, unless and until it beats all of the lawsuits in through the appellate courts,” said Afran. “President Dell’Omo can speak all he wants about ‘conversations’ but they will not be able to sell this property to any buyer.”
The current consolidation plan is projected to cost much less than the $30 million to $35 million plan in 2017. Dell’Omo said that proposals as low as $10 million were discussed. Instead of moving all of the facilities in Princeton to Lawrenceville, which he said would be enormously expensive, the university wants to find more synergies between performing arts currently at the larger campus and WCC.
Dell’Omo, who has had a tumultuous relationship with some students and faculty, from a 2017 vote of no confidence from Rider’s Chapter of American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to WCC students and organizers protesting the consolidation on the Lawrenceville campus on Sept. 14, said he understood that people are resistant to change.
“The longer people kind of fight the change, it becomes even more and more challenging,” said Dell’Omo. “We have tried to be as open and communicative as possible.”
WCC freshman class president and musical education and sacred music major Jordan Klotz said that Dell’Omo’s idea of change is not something he and others at the choir college agree with.
“President Dell’Omo characterizes us as a group of people resisting a positive change,” said Klotz. “But, in truth, the change that we are resisting is one that is inherently illegal and does not serve WCC.”
To highlight the increased communication and cooperation with the community Dell’Omo said that the Campus Transition Team, which was tasked with handling the intricacies of the consolidation and is comprised of faculty, staff and students from both campuses, has been effective.
The president emphasized the importance of fostering unity and cohesion in the university.
“This is one university and we want everybody to feel like they’re part of it and they have a voice in it,” said Dell’Omo. “It doesn’t mean everybody’s voice is going to be the one that rules the day — mine doesn’t even rule the day every time — but it’s really important for people to feel that we are one university and we can have differences and disagreements but as long as we are working toward one common goal and that is to raise Rider University as much as possible.”
Enrollment at WCC has dropped sharply in the last few years. In fall 2016, total enrollment at the choir college was 410 students. By this fall, that number fell to 237 — a 42% drop. Dell’Omo hoped to increase the appeal of WCC on the Lawrenceville campus while also saving costs.
“By consolidating over to this campus, building and providing the facilities we need to have, which is going to hopefully help those enrollments rebound,” said Dell’Omo. “But, it’s now part of a core structure that is all contained within one campus, not two full campuses, and that’s where the cost savings come into play, and if you can create an exciting environment here for the choir college, for fine and performing arts, that whole school, we think can grow significantly.”
While the plans for consolidation progress, the move is still being contested in court. Three separate lawsuits are attempting to block the movement of the school — from the Princeton Theological Seminary, alumni and faculty from both Rider and WCC and a new complaint filed exclusively by students at WCC.
A motion to dismiss the case brought forth by alumni and faculty has been filed by the university and is pending in the New Jersey Superior Court. A motion to dismiss from the Attorney General of New Jersey has been withdrawn, according to Afran. Solomon was hopeful the decision would be revealed in the next few weeks.
On Oct. 29, a complaint was filed by 71 current students at WCC to block the movement of the school to Lawrenceville.
With the swirl of consolidation, sale of the Princeton property, millions of dollars of investments into the Lawrenceville campus and the ongoing litigation, Dell’Omo said that he empathized with the students of WCC. The changes they face, he said, could make people upset. However, he emphasized that students who came to WCC, except seniors, were aware of the looming changes.
“We made it very clear that, relatively soon, when almost all those students before they actually came to Rider and WCC, that something new was going to happen,” said Dell’Omo. “It was not going to stay in Princeton [under Rider’s ownership] or there was the possibility of closing it… we made it clear. We didn’t hide it from anybody that we were looking at this. It was very public.”