By Thomas Regan and Brandon Scalea
Amid stalled discussions with the faculty union, President Gregory Dell’Omo told faculty and staff in two Dec. 1 presentations that the university needs to show a significant increase in enrollment over the next two years and continue to pinch pennies to avoid a projected $13.1 million deficit by 2019.
Among the measures being considered is the shuttering of Westminster Choir College’s Princeton campus, selling that property, and consolidating all students, faculty and staff onto the larger Lawrenceville site, Dell’Omo announced.
“It’s really a two-step process,” Dell’Omo said in an interview on Dec. 2. “We need to stabilize the current situation so we can begin building the investment and growth of the university with the strategic plan. But if you don’t have that bigger vision down the road, it makes the short-term challenges that much more difficult to solve, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Jeffrey Halpern, lead negotiator for Rider’s Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said the union’s initial offer included short-term relief in addition to long-term initiatives that could save the university up to $5.5 million annually by 2020.
However, Dell’Omo said the proposal’s short-term concessions were not enough and worries the long-term savings would take too long to help Rider.
“We would be willing to entertain guarantees or contract extensions, but it has to be the magnitude that is going to stabilize us in the short term,” he said. “The AAUP has offered savings that will get us $5.5 million in savings by 2020, but look at the numbers. We need over $7 million in all of our savings by next year.”
Dell’Omo said if the university does not increase its enrollment by 114 undergraduate students by fall 2017 and find $7.8 million in savings from the AAUP negotiations, program prioritization, and cost-cutting suggested by consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers, Rider will be facing a $7 million deficit in fiscal year 2018.
The outlook he provided was even bleaker for fiscal year 2019. Dell’Omo said the university needed to increase enrollment by another 46 undergraduate students in fall 2018 and have $7.2 million in savings, or it will be looking at a $13.1 million hole in 2019.
During his presentation in a crowded lecture hall at Westminster’s Talbott Library, Dell’Omo stressed the campus consolidation is merely a study at this point and added he hopes a decision will be reached by February.
“This is a multi-faceted analysis we’re doing,” he said. “We’re trying to hit every angle of the stakeholders — past, current and future — to figure out what the impact [of the one-campus model] would be. We’re talking to some people about it and there’s been past donors who are in support of it. We’re trying to gather all the feedback we can.”
Though the president assured the audience that the university is considering the ramifications of such a move, he was barraged with voices of concern.
Multiple Westminster faculty members suggested that eliminating the Princeton campus would strike deeply at Westminster’s reputation.
“I hope, and I’m sure that you’re all looking at this, but by moving this campus, there is a hit we are going to take at an international level about the perception of what our school will become,” professor of conducting James Jordan told Dell’Omo. “In the arts world, I don’t know how that’s going to play out. Among alumni and with the horror of [the move], I’m not so sure we can recover.”
Westminster’s Student Government Association President Katelyn Hemling said the possibility of the consolidation has ignited unease on the campus.
“Most people [on Westminster’s campus] are generally very upset,” she said in an interview on Dec. 6. “They don’t see the reasoning for it, especially without a concrete plan of how we would move forward. The uncertainty about everything is what scares people the most. Until we have some solid information about how this process is going to occur and how long it will take, people won’t know how to react.”
As the Princeton campus processes the idea of a relocation, Dell’Omo has a vision to make Westminster an even stronger part of the university.
In the event the university decides to move Westminster Choir College onto the Lawrenceville campus, Dell’Omo said, “How do we create the world-class Westminster College of the Arts, which Westminster Choir College is a part of right now? If we can expand that and grow that and have that really be a centerpiece for Rider University, can we get more leverage to bring the two together physically that would truly make the arts side of our university a dominant part?”
In addition to savings initiatives, Dell’Omo said in an interview on Dec. 2 the university has ramped up its recruiting efforts with younger high school students in an effort to address the enrollment shortfall.
“It’s done on a one-on-one basis,” he said. “The new thing is a lot more social media. We are starting to contact sophomores and sometimes even freshmen. There’s a lot more aggressiveness in terms of doing one-on-one marketing. We are getting much more aggressive.”
The faculty union expects discussions with the administration to continue, although the sides remain far apart in conversations, according to Halpern.
“We are in conversations about both the short and the long term,” Halpern said. “It’s a slow process. We have not walked away from the table.”