By Stephen Neukam
A potentially pivotal hearing is set in the lawsuits against Rider for its planned consolidation of Westminster Choir College (WCC) from its Princeton campus to Lawrenceville in September.
The hearing, slated for Feb. 14 in front of the New Jersey Superior Court, will consider the university’s motion to dismiss both of the lawsuits against it — one from a group of alumni and faculty and the other from 71 current students of WCC.
Bruce Afran, the attorney for the Westminster Foundation, which is the alumni and faculty group working to stop the sale or movement of the school, said that he expected the court to not dismiss the case based on his experience but conceded that every court and case is different.
If the court decides to grant the university’s motion to dismiss, both parties suing the school would appeal, according to Afran.
The hearing comes in the midst of Rider moving forward with construction and renovation projects on its Lawrenceville campus — part of the $16 million to $20 million consolidation plan announced after the sale of WCC to a Chinese education company was aborted in July 2019.
As the timeline on the consolidation plan condenses, the university has continued to surge ahead with plans to accommodate WCC students, staff and faculty — all while the uncertainty of the legal situation hovers overhead.
Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown said in a statement to The Rider News that the university would continue its policy of not commenting publicly on the ongoing litigation.
“The university remains highly focused on the upcoming transition of Westminster Choir College to the Lawrenceville campus this coming fall, and are grateful for the many individuals from both campuses working so diligently on the details of this move,” said Brown.
The impending hearing and continued court action leave those opposed to the move, including the students signed onto the lawsuit, in a difficult limbo: holding out hope for a favorable court decision while also preparing to move to Lawrenceville in a matter of months.
Junior sacred music and voice performance major Victoria Vazquez, who helped organize the 71-student suit, said that she was “looking forward to” the court hearing and “the ability to gain more information on next steps for the Westminster community.”
The dilemma of moving forward full-throttle on consolidation with the possibility of a major legal roadblock is a problem, Afran said, that could be solved with an injunction ordered by the court to temporarily halt the move — a step that might be requested by the parties suing the university and plans for which have been discussed.
On top of undergoing the renovations and construction on its Lawrenceville campus, partnered with the efforts to litigate the two lawsuits, the university has continued its search to find a partner to cash in on the land in Princeton.
In an interview with The Rider News in October 2018, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo said that the plan was to “pay ourselves back” with the land in Princeton to make up for the resources put into renovations and construction.
The search has included contact with Princeton Public Schools (PPS), which is looking to expand due to increased enrollment projections, about the future of the WCC property.
At a December 2019 PPS Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Steve Cochrane said that the school system and Rider had engaged in “fact-finding” conversations about the legal problems facing the WCC consolidation.
Brown again declined to comment on any discussions the university has had with other parties about the Princeton campus.
Afran was doubtful about the university’s chance of selling the land — at least any time soon.
“Rider has been a little delusional on their ability to sell the Princeton campus,” said Afran. “The only way Rider can sell even one acre of land is if it settles all these lawsuits or it wins them.”