By Brandon Scalea
As Rider’s search for funds leads to the potential sale of the Princeton campus, students and faculty have begun to push back.
A multi-faceted plan to stabilize the projected $13.1 million deficit and provide future growth for Rider could include moving students and faculty of Westminster Choir College to the larger Lawrenceville campus and selling the 85-year-old Princeton property. Although a final decision has not yet been made, University President Gregory Dell’Omo said in a Dec. 1 presentation that he hoped one would be reached at some point in February.
In a Jan. 27 interview, Dell’Omo said the university is looking at various options to determine what would save the most money. In this study, Dell’Omo and his strategic planning committee are projecting what kind of changes would need to happen in Lawrenceville to facilitate the potential move. Components of Westminster Choir College such as rehearsal areas, academic buildings and residence halls would have to be built in Lawrenceville, Dell’Omo said.
“Another aspect we’ve been looking at is how to create a community within a community,” he said. “One of the things we know from the Princeton experience is how they study, perform and go through their educational experience — it’s a very close-knit operation. So how do we create that sense of cohesiveness on this campus? That’s one of the main things we’re looking at.”
At the same time, Dell’Omo said, the university is looking to develop Westminster College of the Arts, encompassing the choir college and Rider’s vibrant musical theater, dance and art programs. The goal would be to emphasize the strong liberal arts experience to recruit prospective students and increase enrollment — another vital aspect to bring the university out of its financial hole.
Jeffrey Halpern, chief negotiator for Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said the administration has looked into a one-campus model three times previously; each time, it decided there would not be a significant enough net in profit. He also thinks the costs of replicating the facilities on that campus would outweigh any money saved.
“The Westminster program is the best program we have at Rider,” Halpern said in a Jan. 31 interview. “Our institution has a number of good programs, but you can only name one that has reached the highest level of international recognition. That’s Westminster.”
Dell’Omo said it’s all part of an academic prioritization process determining what gives the university its greatest chance for recognition, as well as appealing to more college applicants.
“There’s really going to be two areas that we put more emphasis on moving forward, and that’s the arts and the science side,” Dell’Omo said. “The areas that we haven’t been so aggressive in growing over the last 15-20 years are science, engineering and computer technology. Those are areas I’d like to see us make more investments in.”
The resources gained from the potential sale of the Princeton campus would not only be used to bring Westminster students to Lawrenceville, but also to enhance residence halls and provide more scholarship money, Dell’Omo said.
There are three things the university is working on as part of its strategic plan: keeping Rider’s costs more in line with its revenue, making infrastructure changes to make the campus more visually appealing and making Rider more affordable.
Dell’Omo emphasized that the management of two campuses, 7 miles apart, is an extra expense that undermines the first of those three goals.
The administration and the AAUP have tried to devise a plan to save money, but are still not on the same page. Union leader Halpern sent an email to faculty on Jan. 30 describing the most recent standstill. He said the AAUP’s Jan. 5 proposal, featuring cuts to faculty pensions and slashed funds for faculty development, would save the university $11 million by 2019. The union email told members the administration rejected this offer.
“These projections by the administration are not facts,” Halpern said. “When somebody gives me projections that turn out consistently wrong, when I look at the projected budgets, they are inflated based on the information we have. It just doesn’t jive.”
The one-campus plan has naturally been met with strong opposition from Westminster students, faculty and alumni, with many of them making the argument that the move would damage the school’s reputation. Opponents of the merger see Rider and Westminster as two separate entities.
Constance Fee, ’71, president of Westminster’s Alumni Association, requested historic landmark status for the campus on Jan. 5. She is a leader of the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College, whose Facebook page has over 1,800 likes.
Fee said her experience at Westminster was “life-changing,” leading her to a successful career as an opera singer. Her mother also graduated from the college in 1946. She said moving the college into a larger setting would likely damage the school’s reputation.
“We are not just a property worth several million dollars,” she said. “It is not worth sacrificing a historic treasure to save money. If you take a tree out by its roots, what is the probability that the tree will thrive?”
The buildings on the Princeton campus are designed for what Westminster does and can’t be mimicked elsewhere, Fee said. She predicted that Westminster’s enrollment would go down if the campus was sold, and this could present a problem, especially since having under 300 students would prevent them from having a symphonic choir. Over the years, the choir has performed many times with the principal orchestras of New York, Philadelphia and Boston, among others.
On Jan. 31, members of the Westminster community held a 24-hour singing marathon at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton. The event was the coalition’s latest effort to gain support.
Dell’Omo said he acknowledges the people who disagree with the plan, but said they need to focus on Rider University as a whole.
“It is not an option for the university to keep things as they are today,” he said. “To think that we could walk away today after going through the exercise and deciding the status quo remains — that is not an option.”