By Shanna O’Mara
It has been a little more than two months since President Gregory Dell’Omo announced that Rider’s administration is looking into selling the Westminster Choir College (WCC) campus and creating a one-campus model. Since then, many current students, faculty and staff, alumni and community members have voiced their outrage with the proposal, and just this week, a famous face in the Garden State weighed in.
“Rider is a fine school,” Thomas Kean, former New Jersey governor, wrote in a Star Ledger column published on Feb. 6. “It should sit down with a growing and potent national coalition representing Westminster Choir College alumni and its allies. Together, they need to explore how Rider may fund its future without destroying the integrity of a vibrant and respected New Jersey cultural institution and damaging its own reputation.”
On the heels of the 24-Hour Marathon of Music, presented by the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton, to protest the proposed sale of the 23-acre campus, the group hosted a town forum, which drew a modest gathering, on Feb. 7 to discuss the issue.
“These open forums that we’ve had with Dell’Omo have really shown us that there’s been a real lack of transparency on his part,” said Kimberly Reinagel, a first-year graduate student at Westminster. “We’ve tried to put forward some really good questions to him, and he’s done a little dance around each and every one of them which is really frustrating.”
As a remedy to Rider’s projected $13.1 million financial deficit for the 2017 fiscal year, Dell’Omo introduced the idea of moving all Westminster students onto the Lawrenceville campus and selling the Princeton land. While many agree it is time to make changes and increase university revenue, many also say the solution should not be based on the drastic decision to sell one of Rider’s most distinguished aspects.
University spokesperson Kristine Brown recognizes the significance of the college and stresses the proposed sale is only one of many options that administration is considering.
“Rider University supports all constructive forums in which the Westminster community can come together to focus on realistic solutions to our financial challenges,” Brown said. “We know that the Choir College is a special place, and that students, faculty, alumni and members of the community are uniquely suited to share that perspective. From the outset, the university has been transparent about our challenges in both the short and long-term. As we work towards a final decision in the coming weeks, our goal has remained the same: explore all avenues and options to ensure a sustainable future for Rider University as a whole. We look forward to sharing more information from the board at the appropriate time.”
Art Taylor, president of Rider’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter, agrees with exploring options to save money but does not condone the method by which the president has conducted research.
“I agree that it’s OK for [the administration] to do this study,” Taylor said. “I don’t think he should do it publicly.”
Announcing the possibility has resulted in strong backlash emerging from beyond the borders of both campuses.
Kean wrote that Rider is “seeking quick cash even if that means destroying the institutions that define the school.”
As of Feb. 7, there were 1,742 signatures on the change.org petition to save WCC, some of whom claim that enrollment has not decreased on the WCC campus.
“The university administration is looking for ways to stabilize Lawrenceville’s loss of 1,000 students in recent years,” President of the WCC Alumni Council Constance Fee, ’71, wrote in the Feb. 6 newsletter for the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton. “WCC enrollment has not declined.”
In his article, Kean said plopping a “for sale” sign on the grass bordering Walnut Lane may make a dent, as much as $25 million, in the current debt threatening the university but will not sustain revenue through years to come.
The Feb. 7 panel made up of one professor, one alumna, two members of Rider’s AAUP, two graduate students and a parent of a WCC freshman agreed with Gerald Metz’s, ’70, approximation that it would cost $85 million to provide the resources on the Lawrenceville campus that Westminster needs, further damaging the financial state of the school. They did not provide evidence for this calculation.
As a past president of Drew University, Kean wrote that he understood the financial struggle a college may face but does not recommend making the sale of “one of the central pillars upon which we have built the arts in New Jersey. There are precious few places in the nation and around the world where the music lives. Westminster Choir College is one of them.”
He mentioned several “musical giants” who have graced the campus, including alumni as well as past and present faculty.
Reinagel, one of the graduate students on the panel, said that such a drastic change to the renowned school and close-knit campus may drive away prospective students.
“Had I known that the quality of my degree was going to be challenged, maybe I would have taken a second thought to attending Westminster,” she said. “That breaks my heart for students currently looking at this school and wondering ‘Do I really want to go here? Do I really want to invest my time and money here?’”
While Reinagel said she assumes that Dell’Omo only has one option in mind to decrease the deficit, a Feb. 3 centraljersey.com letter to the editor explored other options.
Peter Madison of Princeton wrote in to suggest innovative ways for the campus to make money and save itself. He suggested allowing “the Choir College, with developer participation, to build multi-story housing above their parking lots and open land. This would bring revenue to the Choir College, reduce dependence on cars [for those who wish to live in close-knit, walkable communities], increase our tax base and bring commerce to the downtown, where retail is weak with nearly 10 vacant stores.”
The decision on the proposed sale is set to be made later this spring.