In 2015, during President Gregory Dell’Omo’s fall convocation, he announced that his administration was exploring the possibility of moving the Westminster Choir College (WCC) campus to the Lawrenceville campus. He offered only vague proclamations of the ‘‘high cost of running two campuses’’ and later boasted that by ‘‘selling the Westminster campus’’ he could ‘‘generate cash’’ of 40 to 60 million dollars, likely his real reason for trying to move the campus.
In 2016, the Rider Board of Trustees determined that moving the campus to Lawrenceville would be impractical and instead made the decision to try to sell WCC in its entirety, an unprecedented action for a not-for-profit higher education institution. The Board of Trustees then reached out to the current board chair Michael Kennedy’s former company, PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting (PwC), to broker the deal.
The justification for moving or selling WCC has been an unproven assertion that it is too expensive for Rider to run WCC on a separate campus. Despite repeated requests for the accounting basis for this assertion, Dell’Omo’s administration has never produced any objective evidence that WCC ‘costs too much to run.’
The basis for this dubious statement appears to be a financial analysis conducted by PwC Consulting. A slide presented at administration’s ‘‘financial forum’’ in 2016 summarized this evidence and showed WCC ‘costing’ the university $2 million in 2013, but generating a $2.9 million surplus in 2016. This analysis asserted that tuition discounting was the primary source of the 2013 ‘deficit,’ and only scholarships specifically designated to be used for WCC students could be used to offset the cost of tuition discounting. In recent years, Rider has never had scholarship funds which cover 100% of tuition discounting. Had this analytical standard been applied to other colleges on campus, most — if not all — of our colleges would have shown such a ‘‘deficit.’’ Additionally, the $2.9 million surplus for Westminster shown on a presentation slide for 2016 should theoretically have been applied to the projections for years 2017, 2018 and 2019. This logical application of funds designated for Westminster students would easily have erased the deficits shown, but on the presentation slide prepared by PwC, the $2.9 million surplus curiously disappears and deficits are projected for the operation of WCC for 2017, 2018 and 2019.
It appears this deeply flawed analysis has been the basis for the oft-repeated falsehood that the university cannot afford to run WCC. Contrary to the claims of excessive operating costs, until Dell’Omo launched his failed attempt to sell the college, there is ample evidence that WCC contributed positive cash flow to the institution and would have continued to do so in the future.
Additionally, the failed attempt to sell the school has generated expensive lawsuits, destroyed enrollment and gift giving at WCC, infuriated alumni and led to expenditures on expensive consulting and legal fees totaling an estimated $11 million dollars in direct costs and indirect losses for the university.
Unfortunately, oblivious to their previous failures, Dell’Omo and the Board of Trustees continue down the same ill-conceived path. Not only is the attempt to cram WCC programs onto the Lawrenceville campus in one year unnecessary, impractical and doomed to failure; it is, as the lawsuits against Rider contend, illegal. Rider University does not have title to the land Westminster resides on, the Princeton Theological Seminary does. It is simply not true, as Dell’Omo has said, that the Westminster programs can be moved to Lawrenceville and then parts of the Westminster property can be sold for profit.
While one would hope that at some point Dell’Omo and the Board of Trustees would chart a more rational path forward, that does not appear likely. So it is up to all those who recognize the importance of saving WCC to advocate for retaining the college and programs on the Princeton campus where it belongs.
Arthur Taylor, Professor, Rider College of Business