Lawsuit seeks to protect students’ academic freedom

By Lauren Lavelle

Williamson Hall at Westminster Choir College.

An additional lawsuit attempting to block the sale of Westminster Choir College (WCC) was filed against Rider on Sept. 10, joining the two previous lawsuits in the fight for WCC. 

The new lawsuit was filed on Sept. 10 by The Westminster Foundation, an independent organization which says it is dedicated to preserving the future of WCC. The suit alleges that the sale of WCC to a Chinese company will interfere with students’ academic freedom and independence. The Westminster Foundation will also join the Princeton Theological Seminary on its current lawsuit against Rider which claims that, according to the 1935 trust agreement, the Seminary has beneficial rights to the land.

The Rider News reached out to Anne Stewart, associate vice president for communication at the Princeton Theological Seminary, and she said the seminary did not have a comment on the lawsuit at this time. 

“We will not sit by and let our academic and artistic freedoms be threatened,” said Constance Fee, president of The Westminster Foundation, of the new lawsuit. “This is the first time that an authoritarian government will be seeking to directly control an American college.”

 WCC Professor Joel Phillips, the AAUP’s assistant grievance officer, further explained what the lawsuit means for the future of WCC. 

“This new lawsuit is alleging that the government, not the people, but the government of China, which is authoritarian and oppressive, would be the owner of Westminster if this transaction goes through,” said Phillips. 

Phillips provided an example of how the Chinese government has already infringed on WCC’s freedom. 

“When the Westminster choir goes to China to perform in October, it had to submit its program to the government of China for approval,” he said. “That’s obviously a violation of academic freedom.” 

Bruce Afran, the attorney representing The Westminster Foundation in the new lawsuit, echoed Phillips’ statements and questioned Kaiwen’s ability to provide academic independence to WCC’s students. 

“Kaiwen is a government-controlled company,” Afran said. “The Chinese government requires all schools and universities to adhere to governmental ideology. China has attempted to censor not only its own schools but schools in the U.S. and other Western countries.”

Afran referred to the Westminster Choir College Acquisition Corporation (WCCAC), a nonprofit entity set to run WCC after the transaction is complete, as a “sham” used to cover up Kaiwen’s true intentions. 

“It is not an independent nonprofit, it is a commercial company, which is illegal,” he said. 

Despite the continuous pushback, Rider stands firm with its decision to pick Kaiwen to take over the choir school. 

“Rider University is aware of the lawsuit filed by the Westminster Foundation in the Superior Court of New Jersey,” said Kristine Brown, associate vice president of university marketing and communications. “As we’ve long told the campus community, we believe Kaiwen is in the best position to preserve and enhance Westminster Choir College, including their pledge to invest $16 million into the college over the next five years. Their commitment is real, and we are working hard to ensure all regulatory approvals required for the transition to WCCAC.”

According to Afran, if the lawsuit is successful, one of two things will happen to WCC.

“[Either] the deal will not go forward and Rider will continue to operate Westminster as it always has, [or]  the court will appoint a special master to start the process of separating Westminster from Rider and creating an independent Westminster,” he said. 

Phillips added, “I actually do think these lawsuits have merit.  No matter what, they will push beyond the day of the proposed conclusion of this transaction.”

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