By Shanna O’Mara
Just hours after President Gregory Dell’Omo’s announcement that the Board of Trustees was seeking a third-party buyer to absorb Westminster Choir College (WCC), the Princeton Public Schools’ (PPS) board unanimously passed a resolution that would allow administrators to move forward with an expressed interest in the campus.
The PPS administration may now reach out to professionals for land acquisition, financial advising and bond counsel, taking preliminary steps to potentially purchase the land and use it for educational purposes.
University spokesperson Kristine Brown issued a statement on March 29 in response to the PPS board meeting.
“When we first commissioned the study into the feasibility of a one-campus model, we fielded inquiries in the property from multiple parties, including Princeton Public Schools,” Brown said. “Since that time, and as the board announced on March 28, a one-campus model is no longer under consideration. While we appreciate their interest and deeply value our place in the Princeton community, as President Dell’Omo informed the Rider community, over the next 12 months, our highest priority is to find an institution willing to acquire Westminster Choir College and keep it in Princeton.”
While preserving WCC’s 85-year tradition in Princeton is the “leading preference,” it is not the only plan of action being evaluated by the board and the hired consulting network, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Dell’Omo said at a student forum on March 28.
Brown said the sale would greatly reduce the debt currently impacting the university.
“WCC’s deficits have been in the mid-$2 million range for the past several years,” Brown said. “Recent budget cuts and donor funds have helped somewhat. By not having a second campus, Rider’s costs would be reduced by more than $3 million per year.”
Dell’Omo also said the Board of Trustees will look into the possibility of another institution buying and moving WCC to that institution’s location, in which case Princeton Public Schools has offered to purchase the 23 acres of land that would then be bare of the world-renowned performers.
“We also hope that in the event the college is unable to remain at its Princeton location, both the college and the town will consider the possibility of the public schools becoming caretakers of the campus and continuing the tradition of educating leaders, scholars, artists and innovators,” the PPS website stated.
“[WCC] has been a valuable partner to the Princeton Public Schools,” the website continued. “The two schools have regularly shared facilities, and Westminster students have taught music classes to our sixth graders for more than two decades. We deeply respect Westminster’s nearly 100-year history of artistic innovation and renown, and we hope the exceptional legacy of Westminster Choir College will continue for many more generations.”
PPS’s interest in the land may stem from its 9.9 percent increase in enrollment since 2011, according to the district’s demographic study released on March 24.
The study said 3,671 students attended Princeton High School in 2016, some of whom are from an ongoing partner school in Cranbury. The contract between the two districts will extend through the 2019-20 school year and has brought in millions of dollars in annual revenue, according to Princeton School Board Superintendent Steve Cochrane.
“Our educational relationship with Cranbury generates $4.5 million in revenue,” Cochrane said in 2014. “Without that revenue, the district would have to cut both programs and staff, creating a situation in which we might conceivably have more space but fewer opportunities for students.”
As the relationship between PPS and Rider develops, Dell’Omo said he will work to provide updates to staff and students while protecting certain information during this time.
“As we begin this process, aspects of this search will have to remain confidential between Rider and that institution [which ultimately buys WCC],” Dell’Omo wrote in an email to the Rider community on April 3.
The board will continue to analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of the university as decisions are made regarding WCC, according to Debbie Stasolla, associate vice president for planning.
“Our strategic planning work, including the SWOT analyses last spring and the goal setting and action planning work this past fall, led to the realization by the president and cabinet of the need for the work and analysis conducted over the past several months and which ultimately led to the decision made by the board last week,” Stasolla said. “We will now incorporate this additional work and analysis into the draft plan.”
Westminster professors met on April 3 to discuss the future of the school, regardless of its ties to Rider. The decision made last week “produced an unusual reaction” at WCC, according to a press release from the WCC faculty, but members are standing strong and continuing to fight for the preservation of the history and talent that has grown in Princeton.
“Despite the uncertainty created by recent events, Westminster faculty took an action to assure people of something that is certain — our sincere belief we will continue teaching the next generation of musical leaders at the best music school of its kind in the world,” said Joel Phillips, professor of music theory and composition.
Following the meeting, participants placed a contribution in an envelope labeled “Secure the Future of Westminster Choir College,” according to Phillips.
“The 11 of us who were out of town giving performances or presenting at conferences sent their wishes and their checks with colleagues,” he said.
Responses to significant decisions, such as the Westminster’s faculty’s reaction to the March 28 announcement, will help shape the university going forward by prompting amendments made to Rider’s strategic plan, according to Stasolla.
“We will present an updated draft plan to faculty, staff and students for their feedback, similar to what we did last fall in terms of the proposed strategic themes and mission,” she said. “Ultimately, we anticipate that the board will review and consider the draft plan at its meeting in June.”
While the board continues to analyze the next steps for Rider and its Princeton campus, WCC students will continue to prepare for scheduled shows.
“As far as planning next year’s season, it’s business as usual,” Anne Sears, director of external affairs, said. “Some of our major performances are planned years in advance. For example, the Westminster Symphonic Choir’s 2017-2018 season is already set.”
The symphonic choir will perform with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall in May, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall in October and with the Philadelphia Orchestra at The Kimmel Center in early November.
Dell’Omo is also preparing admitted students for their potential future at Westminster.
“The university will honor all of its offers of admission to Westminster Choir College applicants,” he wrote in a letter sent to high school seniors who have been accepted. He added that student services, academic programs and housing will be provided through at least next year. In the “unlikely event” that Rider cannot find a new partner for the Princeton school during their intended time frame, “Rider will offer the Westminster Choir College coursework on the Lawrenceville campus” starting in the fall of 2018.
Although the fate of the school is undetermined, the dedication on campus is not. WCC faculty are still fighting to protect their institution’s legacy.
“We think it’s important for our students, present and future, to understand the deep level of our commitment,” Phillips said. “We think it’s important any potential partner understand what an extraordinary place Westminster is. Though faculty, students, alumni and friends were disappointed by Rider’s decision to sever its long-time relationship with Westminster, the senior administration has stated it’s committed to finding a way forward for us. At Westminster, our eyes are on the future.”
The Westminster Symphonic Choir schedule can be found at bit.ly/1L35yon. Continuous updates of the board’s progress can be seen at rider.edu/thepathforward.