By Lauren Lavelle
Mixed reactions have overwhelmed Westminster Choir College (WCC) since Rider announced the sale of the Princeton campus to Kaiwen Education on Feb. 21. Kaiwen has operated two K-12 academies in Beijing since August 2016. Until December 2017, it was called Jiangsu Zhongtai Bridge Steel Company, and it specialized in installing, manufacturing and transporting steel bridges.
This news came a little less than a year after the university first announced its intention to find a different institution to take over the world-renowned music conservatory.
President Gregory Dell’Omo confirmed during a Feb. 26 interview that Kaiwen is the group that the Board of Trustees has been negotiating with since August, meaning they knew Kaiwen was primarily a construction company for months before the unnamed buyer was ultimately identified to the public.
When asked why Kaiwen decided to shift their focus from steel manufacturing to K-12 and baccalaureate education — two completely different entities — Dell’Omo said he did not know.
University spokeswoman Kristine Brown said Kaiwen Education has declared it is now solely focusing on academics and that is evident in its sudden name change.
“The name change to Kaiwen Education is to more accurately reflect its true business,” she said.
Associate professor of communication Aaron Moore does not find the switch from steel company to education institution troublesome and commends the president for his decision.
“Any organization or business willing to buy the school has to be a worthwhile partner, and I trust him and the process,” he said. “I absolutely support the president. It’s a tough marketplace and he is being proactive and strategic in trying to find ways to help Rider.”
Elizabeth Scheiber, president of Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote in an executive committee letter to the union that the announcement has been deeply troubling.
“It is completely beyond belief that the buyer has the ability, not to mention the desire, to run a world-renowned choir college,” she wrote.
Despite the fact that Kaiwen obtained their K-12 academies less than two years ago, Dell’Omo said Kaiwen presented a thorough plan that demonstrated they had the best intentions for WCC.
“When we were interviewing potential partners about a year or so ago, before the board decided on this organization, [Kaiwen] came in with the most comprehensive plan, focus, resources, vision and understanding of the Westminster brand and the importance of its location being in Princeton,” he said. “Even though they don’t have a lot of experience, they show that the ability and willingness to hire and invest in the right people, structures and pedagogy to make it successful.”
Dean of Westminster College of the Arts Marshall Onofrio echoed Dell’Omo’s statement and praised Kaiwen’s abilities.
“I believe that Kaiwen presents a unique opportunity for the future,” he said. “My hope for Westminster is that the campus and community will continue its historical mission while embracing the 21st century. I believe that Kaiwen has the resources and commitment to make this a reality.”
Dell’Omo also emphasized the lack of interest American institutions had in obtaining WCC, saying international organizations were the university’s only options.
“Let’s not forget that there weren’t too many offers on the table,” he said. “No U.S. university offered to take it and offer [education] from this campus in Princeton. The only interest we had was from international organizations, typically Asian organizations that clearly understood the rise of music education — in particular, when you look at piano, instrumental, choral, vocal music — it really is an engaging market.”
Both Dell’Omo and Onofrio said Kaiwen’s offer was not the highest offer they received for the choir school.
According to statistics from marketwatch.com, the value of the Kaiwen stock has decreased by 35 percent since it opened its first schools in August 2016.
Dell’Omo would not comment on that steep drop and said he could not “speak on behalf of the organization.”
Joel Phillips, music theory and composition professor, said he is skeptical about having Kaiwen as the new owner of WCC.
“When learning the name of the proposed buyer, I was utterly shocked and sickened,” Phillips said. “Until two months ago, the buyer was making bridge steel.”
“By asking that an organization buy Westminster, the president has guaranteed no entity qualified to run it would be considered a contender,” he added. “No qualified organization would pay $40 million for a college’s programs.”
Further negotiations are currently underway, with Dell’Omo and the board hoping to make more progress this spring.
“Now that we have the term sheet agreed to, we will immediately begin to negotiate the remaining items to reach an agreement for a binding contract,” Dell’Omo said. “By this spring, we’re hoping to have that done. We still have to work through some issues, and there are some big issues that we have to talk about as we move to the next step which is closing the agreement.”
After waiting nearly a year for information on a potential buyer for WCC, students had mixed feelings about the university announcement released on Feb. 21.
Senior music major Deanna Sorge said she was still in class when the email announcement came out.
“It was surprising but I’m trying to stay positive,” Sorge said. “I’m glad they have other people who are well-educated in the music field helping with the process. As much as there’s still uncertainty, I’m hoping for the best. I want Westminster to have a history. I want to go back and watch the choirs I used to sing in. One day, my kids are going to ask me about my experiences and I want to be able to show them something.”
Jonathan Lakeland, ’12, was among the hundreds of students, alumni and faculty who gathered outside North Hall in March 2017 for a silent protest as the Board of Trustees filed into a meeting and made their decision to find a new partner for WCC. “Concerned” was the first word that came to his mind when he caught news of the announcement, he said.
“I think they misjudged how many people would be talking about this,” Lakeland said. “It’s not just alumni and students. We’re talking really important players in the classical music community.”
The process of selling Westminster has not only been covered by local news outlets, but also by The New York Times, Reuters, Chinese news organizations and classical music publications such as Slipped Disc. Last year, renowned contemporary composer Eric Whitacre even tweeted his support for WCC to stay in Princeton.
Offering a suggestion for the future, Lakeland said he hopes Kaiwen will assemble a committee of WCC faculty, staff, alumni and current students to help develop the institutions’ partnership.
“After all, these are the only people who truly understand what WCC needs in order to thrive,” he explained.
“The way you evaluate a place like Westminster is not by whether it turns a [significant] profit,” Lakeland added. “You evaluate it by the quality of the work it does and the good it puts out into the world. And by that standard, Westminster is invaluable.”
While the faculty union continues to question the legality of the WCC layoff notices sent out this past October, Dell’Omo wrote to the Rider community that Kaiwen “intends to make offers of employment to faculty and staff.”
“The term sheet further provides that those offers to faculty and staff will include then-current base salary/hourly pay, preserve individual faculty members’ rank, tenure and service credit, and provide for employee benefit plans that are comparable in the aggregate to present benefit plans,” he wrote. “Some other terms of employment may vary from what is presently in place to address the circumstances and challenges of operating Westminster independent of Rider University.”
AAUP Chief Grievance Officer Jeffrey Halpern and the AAUP executive committee have a grim outlook of the announcement details as well as those behind the critical decisions being made.
“We believe that goal can only be accomplished by stripping Westminster of its assets, laying off faculty and administrators and then closing it and converting the land and buildings to other purposes, further evidence that Rider’s administration, with approval of Rider’s Board of Trustees, is acting in complete disregard of both its legal and moral obligations to Westminster Choir College,” Halpern said.
Additional reporting by Gianluca D’Elia and Shanna O’Mara