By Shaun Chornobroff
In March of 2020, as students of Rider’s Westminster Choir College were abruptly sent home due to a burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic for online schooling, the harsh realization that their Princeton campus would never again be home set in.
The long-dreaded transition Westminster students and faculty had to face from the tiny campus in Princeton to Rider’s main Lawrenceville campus was one the prestigious choir college now had to face months earlier than expected.
“We were going through that year thinking that we had until the spring. There were things like traditions, Westminster traditions that we were planning on doing in the spring that we never ended up getting to do,” Jordan Mongell, a junior music education major said, sadly reminiscing.
Mongell had to say his farewells to the Princeton campus as a freshman. Despite spending less than a year in Princeton before departing, Mongell is one of the many Westminster upperclassmen who longs for the campus and college he once knew.
A declining student body
When Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo announced the decision to move Westminster from Princeton to Lawrenceville in 2016, it was met with much scrutiny from the Westminster community.
Westminster’s recruiting strategy centers around mainly alumni recommendations, as well as performances at high schools, giving prospective students around the country the opportunity to see the choir firsthand.
With the continuous public backlash and alumni and student lawsuits that have been a dominant talking point within the Westminster community, it has been more difficult than ever before to recruit students to Westminster.
“So when the move occurred,
a lot of the alumni got very angry, there’s lawsuits involved, there’s a lot of negativity around the choir college, it does cut off some of that referral process,” Dell’Omo said in a March 8 interview with The Rider News. “And on top of the pandemic, when you can’t be out there performing, that obviously impacts students wanting to go into that field as well.”
In the fall of 2021, Westminster welcomed 16 freshmen onto the Lawrenceville campus, according to university data: A 78% reduction from the 72 first-time freshmen the school enrolled in 2016 – before Dell’Omo announced initial plans to sell the nearly century-old institution.
Joel Phillips, a professor who has spent more than 30 years at Westminster, bluntly said, “You know what it’s going to be next year if we’re lucky? Something along those lines.”
In 2016, Westminster’s total undergraduate enrollment stood at 318 students. Five years later, the undergraduate enrollment was 102 students entering the 2021-2022 school year, with the total enrollment number lowering by more than 100 students since the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.
Mongell said,“I have a running list of people who left because of the move … right now, that list is bigger than the amount of kids that are still here.”
While the total Westminster student body has decreased 55% since Dell’Omo revealed his plans to move the school to Lawrenceville, the university president maintains the decision was a result of years of research and cited long-term declining enrollment as part of the decision.
In 2007, Westminster had a total enrollment of 546 students with 416 being undergraduate students. By 2012, the total number dipped to 435 students with only 318 undergraduates. From 2004 to 2007 Westminster enrolled more than 100 undergraduate students each year. University data for undergraduate students only dates back to 2004. From 2008 to 2016, the Princeton campus only welcomed more than 100 undergraduate students twice.
“It had begun to decline already,” Dell’Omo said when asked about Westminster’s dropping enrollment. “… Even in 2007, we had 500 some students, that was equal to the number of majors we had in accounting, psychology and business administration. Three departments, undergraduate departments, not even counting graduate programs, and so you wouldn’t have a full campus for accounting, psychology and business administration majors.”
New home or no home?
Sarah Swahlon is an exception among the Westminster community. The senior music education major may hold her grudges about the transition between the campuses six miles away from each other, but as a whole, she loves the Lawrenceville experience.
“I’m a very positive person, so I’ve kind of assimilated and I’ve joined Greek life; I’ve done a lot on Rider’s campus. And I’ll be honest, I love it,” Swahlon said.
Swahlon is a member of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority, which has given her something many Westminster students now may lack without a campus of their own: a culture to take pride in.
“As far as being in Westminster, I don’t feel like there’s a Westminster culture anymore to be honest. I think we’re lacking space to be honest because for example, with me being in Greek Life, that’s where I’ve really found my culture and where I’ve really found this space to support a community at Rider,” Swahlon said.
Swahlon may be an outlier among the Westminster community; while she found her home, many feel they have been demeaned of a purpose as a result of the transition.
Mongell is one of the many students who have felt the effects of the move.
“I just know my friends, it’s something that’s on our minds 24/7. When we’re in choir and we’re singing in the chapel, every single note that we sing, I’m thinking about the move. I’m thinking about how this space is a terrible place to sing in. Every time I go to practice, I’m like ‘this is a terrible practice.’ It’s involving itself in everything I go and do and it’s honestly really taking a toll. For me, it’s taking a toll on my mental health and I already dealt with mental health stuff over the pandemic. So, this added layer of feeling like I’m not doing what I signed up to do for four years, it’s honestly taking a toll on me personally,” Mongell said passionately.
Rider’s Vice President of Enrollment Management Drew Aromando sympathized with the plight of the Westminster students and understands that Lawrenceville may not evoke the comforting feeling the Princeton campus once did.
“I think it’s just simply because those places to hang out, those traditions, just like in your home, you had your favorite go-to place. It will take time for those to sort of establish here, but it doesn’t mean we’re any less of a community that wants to support you,” Aromando said.
Westminster was a safe haven for music, and the sounds of students singing often bellowed throughout the Princeton campus. As a professor, Phillips misses hearing his students spontaneously break into song or harmonize every time a student had a birthday.
“They don’t do that now that they’re on the [Lawrenceville] campus. They don’t break out in four-part harmony,” Phillips said. “They don’t do that because now it’s odd. … They feel awkward the same way they felt awkward being in a high school where they were the music nerd.”