By Shaun Chornobroff
Amid controversy and uncertainty from faculty and staff after Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo’s June 7 announcement that Rider will eliminate or “archive” 25 academic programs and further cut its workforce, in a June 9 interview with The Rider News, Dell’Omo acknowledged a lack of optimism at the university said the only way to improve campus morale is to achieve financial stability.
At a June 9 forum for faculty and staff, one university employee directly suggested that the administration urgently needed a plan to restore faculty and student morale. (Student journalists from The Rider News were prohibited from attending the forum in Yvonne Theater, and a planned Zoom broadcast of the forum was abruptly canceled the day before.)
In the interview, Dell’Omo pointed to his past experience at St. Joseph’s University and Robert Morris University for reassurance that morale will improve.
“In both institutions, when I first got there, they had major financial problems, and the morale was just like we’re talking about here,” Dell’Omo said. “The common denominator was not some magic formula and not just people kind of singing ‘Kumbaya’ with each other. The magic formula was that the university went from a financial deficit situation, to an institution that was financially strong.”
The elimination of majors and graduate degree programs and layoffs – possibly including faculty layoffs – is part of the school’s latest effort to minimize the $20 million debt putting a stranglehold on Rider’s financial future and continues Dell’Omo’s upheaval of the university since he arrived in 2015.
Programs eliminated include undergraduate majors in Economics, Global Studies, Health Care Policy, American Studies and Piano, according to the announcement. The Philosophy major will be eliminated, and shifted to a minor. Master’s degree programs including Business Communication, Homeland Security and five different music-related graduate programs such as Piano Performance, Organ Performance and Piano Pedagogy are also terminated.
Provost DonnaJean Fredeen said at the employee forum that the eight programs designated as “archived” demonstrate some future potential and could be strategically revised and possibly reimplemented in the future, according to a recording of the meeting. The archived programs include majors in Organizational Psychology, French, Music Theory/Composition and Sacred Music, as well the Executive M.B.A program and the master’s degree in Piano Accompany and Coaching.
All current students whose programs are being eliminated or archived will have a path towards graduation, the email stated. Rider will also be increasing its investment in seven programs in an effort to help them grow.
In his June 7 messages to the university community, Dell’Omo said his plan “is about embracing our future, and preparing for it. For as much as Rider has accomplished over the past 157 years, I believe even more is possible. But to succeed, we must stay as focused as ever on meeting the changing needs of students.”
Dell’Omo’s announcement also notified employees that “a document detailing the need to invoke Article XV (Lay-Off) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement has been shared with the [faculty union],” indicating that the university intends to dismiss professors.
However, in the employee forum, Fredeen said there was no specific announcement yet about specific faculty layoffs because the university was considering a voluntary separation plan for affected departments, and because the administration was assessing language in the current faculty contract that prohibits layoffs.
“There will not be massive [faculty] layoffs,” Fredeen said at the forum, adding that in recent years Rider’s full-time faculty has dropped from 252 to 208.
A press release from Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), whose members have consistently campaigned for Dell’Omo’s removal, called the potential layoffs and program cuts as “unnecessary, panic-driven decisions that will not solve Rider’s problems.”
“It is simple. President Dell’Omo has failed Rider University. He must be expelled immediately,” said AAUP President Barbara Franz.
The June 9 forum featured a more than half-hour speech from Dell’Omo followed by a question and answer segment, which featured contentious discussions surrounding the future of Westminster Choir College (WCC), the Westminster Conservatory community music school and the decision to outsource Rider’s Office of Information Technologies.
‘A going out of business plan‘
Joel Phillips has been teaching at WCC for nearly four decades and a part of Rider since the choir college was acquired by the school in 1992.
A professor of composition and musical theory, he has been an open voice against Dell’Omo and fears for Rider’s future if the current administration is kept in charge.
“In my view, his is not a business plan, it’s a going out of business plan,” Phillips said.
However, in his interview with The Rider News, Dell’Omo confidently assured that Rider will stay in business.
In both the open dialogue and interview with The Rider News, Dell’Omo painted a picture of an institution in recovery, one that is finally on the path of finding its financial footing after navigating extreme turmoil.
In the dialogue, Dell’Omo said Rider’s improved financially, but is “certainly not in a healthy position.”
Rider has 830 first-time deposits for the fall, which is a drastic increase from the 653 Dell’Omo said the school had this time last year and brings Rider closer to its pre-pandemic numbers. In addition, the school is projecting a growth in residential students from last year, which serves as a big factor in Rider’s efforts to fix its financial constraints.
“We are definitely improving this year’s budget, even though we’re still in a deficit situation, we’ve made some strides in improving it, both on the revenue side and on the expenditure side,” Dell’Omo said.
After being moved off of their Princeton campus, the elimination of many programs was the latest hit to the WCC community.
When questioned about WCC at the dialogue, the administration cited operating costs and 15 years of declining enrollment as reasons for the cut. While WCC enrollment did trickle down from 2007 to the beginning of Dell’Omo’s tenure, they have taken a nosedive since his efforts to transition the school to Lawrenceville started in 2016.
“There’s responsibility from the standpoint that we made a strategic decision back in 2016, to divest ourselves of Westminster Choir College. And again, this was after lengthy study, not just under my administration, but under every other administration, that had been in place since Westminster came to Rider University back in 1992,” Dell’Omo explained in the interview. “It’s always been a challenge economically for the university. It was a challenge before we took it over, remember, we took it over because it was closing.”
Dell’Omo said that Rider cannot cut itself to success. Through investing in many profitable majors, said he’s hoping to see the school grow itself for the future while stabilizing itself in the present. However, he added, that can’t happen without some difficult decisions that impact students.
D’Jalma Lopez graduated from Rider with a master’s degree in homeland security in 2017 and works in private security. With his program now set to be eliminated, he openly worries about his chances of moving up in his field, but also feels sorry for future students who will be deprived of the positive experience he received.
“A homeland security degree really helped in that department, and not just the degree itself but the professors I had access to,” Lopez said. “Which I still do, I still keep in touch with them.”
Katy Timari is heading into her senior year at Rider, and the healthcare policy major was surprised to see her major among the cuts.
“The fact that just now, what was a completely valid degree during my freshman year is something that isn’t considered valid by my university anymore … is kind of decrediting all the work that I’ve done and all the work that’s been done surrounding everybody in my program,” Timari explained.