- By Shanna O’Mara and Gianluca D’Elia
An outpouring of questions about the future of Westminster Choir College (WCC) came to light during a series of forums on March 4, following the Feb. 21 announcement that Rider had signed a non-binding agreement with Kaiwen Education Technology, which owns two international K through 12 schools in China, to become the Princeton campus’ new partner.
Dean of Westminster College of the Arts Marshall Onofrio addressed questions from students and faculty, with help from Kaiwen consultant Nicholas Xie and one of the recently announced accreditation consultants, Larry Livingston.
The second consultant, Catherine Jarjisian, was not present at the forums but said she will be at Westminster from March 26 through 29 to discuss music accreditation.
“We’re all scared because we love this place, but I’m excited for the future and what it could bring,” said WCC conductor James Jordan. “I was here in 1991 when the school almost closed. We had an entering class of about 37 people, and it took us five or six years to recover.”
Onofrio recognized this concern and admitted that while the administration is working to recruit more students, interest level in the school took a plunge this year.
“Our applications are down significantly,” Onofrio said. “We’re running at about 56 percent of our actual, typical applicant pool. Our normal freshman class up to a couple of years ago was in the 85 to 90 range. This past fall, again after all of this was first announced, it was about 65. We had 59 true, first-time freshman and six transfer students. To date, we have accepted 99 students for next year.”
President Gregory Dell’Omo mentioned in a Feb. 26 interview with The Rider News that the classical music market is moving heavily toward Asian nations. Xie expressed a similar sentiment as he presented information about the education company.
“We have sports, we have the Kaiwen Academy [the two K-12 schools in Beijing], but we don’t have arts and music,” Xie said. “That’s the missing part here.”
Xie said 80 percent of pianos are manufactured in China and 30 million to 40 million kids are learning to play there. Meanwhile, 10 million are learning violin. Only 3 percent of urban households own a piano, which means the rest of the families attend conservatories to study classical music.
Jeffrey Halpern, the AAUP’s chief grievance officer, questioned aspects of the agreement and said the uncertainty of the plan still troubles the union’s executive committee.
“We want to hear a real business plan,” he said. “I understand Kaiwen’s business plan in China and, quite honestly, it sounds like a good one. I’m trying to understand how that translates to WCC, where enrollment is already full and scholarships are already in place.”
Xie said Kaiwen strives for excellence.
“I think we have the same mission for WCC — to be the best,” he said.
With two campuses operating and three others under construction in China, Xie said American students will have the opportunity to perform there, and Chinese students will be encouraged to study abroad at WCC.
He clarified that the company “completely divested and exited from the steel bridge structure business. Education and activities related to education became its main business,” and that the Haidian District, where one of the operating campuses is located, is “famous for engineering and science.”
A performing arts center has been built at one of Kaiwen’s campuses, and although it did not appear in the PowerPoint, a photo of it is posted on Kaiwen’s website. Larry Livingston said, “The facilities are absolutely phenomenal.”
Because Kaiwen’s schools are operating in a communist state, some faculty voiced concerns about this factor potentially disrupting specific areas of study once the company takes over WCC.
“Our sacred music department has been neglected over the years,” said Sharon Sweet, professor of voice. “You’d be very hard-pressed to find a church across the country where the minister of music or organist or both either studied here or studied with someone who did study here.”
Xie assured her that the Chinese government has no intention to restrict the study or practice of sacred music in the United States, even noting that there are several churches in China where similar art is performed.
Kathy Price, assistant professor of voice, noticed an emphasis on performing arts during Xie’s presentation and pointed out that there is another aspect of WCC’s curriculum that needs to be upheld. “We have a very strong academic program [at Westminster],” she said.
Striving to keep the status quo
Following the faculty forum, a session for students was also held. Eight students attended, and they shared similar concerns to those of their professors.
Students asked about whether they will still be able to take advantage of the variety of courses Rider has to offer, since several students have second majors and minors that require classes on the Lawrenceville campus. Even a couple of the students at the forum had minors in arts administration.
“We are bound by state law to offer what we call liberal arts and science,” Onofrio said. “The bigger question you might be alluding to is, ‘How can a student study something like biochemistry?’ That particular kind of partnership exists literally nationwide and worldwide. We are going to have to reconstruct. It could mean maintaining [our partnership] with Rider. It could be something that means enhancing our current partnership with Princeton University. We will continue to supply liberal arts courses, and it will be part of the curriculum as long as the curriculum requires it.”
WCC currently has a cross-registration program with Princeton.
The potential change in tuition costs was also a concern raised by students and faculty.
“The Rider University Board of Trustees met this past week and part of their business was a set of recommendations for what will happen to tuition and fees for 2018-19,” Onofrio said. “As long as WCC is part of Rider University, those tuition fees and structures will apply to WCC.”
Many faculty members questioned the repetitive use of the word “change” during discussions of the school’s transition from Rider to Kaiwen, but the administration wouldn’t specify what was meant by this term.
Serving as labor counsel to Kaiwen Education, Patrick McCarthy said, “To be clear, there are going to be things that are going to have to change just as a necessity.”
“Change isn’t always good,” Halpern said. “It can be bad, but that lies in the details we don’t know.”
Because the term sheet is confidential, such details cannot be released, but Livingston reiterated throughout the day that the operations of WCC thus far have not kept the school afloat. Rider administrators declined to release the term sheet to The Rider News.
“It’s pretty clear changes are going to have to happen because the present model isn’t working,” Livingston said. “What those changes are haven’t been determined yet.”
Xie spoke optimistically about the “significant synergies between WCC and Kaiwen Education.”
“As a new, independent music school, WCC has a much better chance to compete and grow,” he said. “The partnership will succeed only if Westminster can succeed.”
He said even a nonprofit “can’t lose money every day for 90 years” or else no one would make financial contributions to the institution.
Halpern countered, “I understand why people invest [in Kaiwen], but they don’t invest as an act of philanthropy,” noting that Kaiwen is a for-profit entity.
Faculty, staff seek more communication
Another topic of concern was that status of faculty as the transaction moves forward.
“I still have the letter from President Dell’Omo saying my services are no longer needed as of August,” Laura Brooks Rice, professor of voice, said as she pointed to the president seated in a corner of the room. “It has not been rescinded.”
Livingston addressed this issue, which was brought up multiple times by both faculty and students.
“The commitment of the Kaiwen Education Academy is clear; tenured faculty will remain at tenure, full-time faculty will retain tenure, salary and rank, and they will have benefits comparable to the present in the aggregate,” he said. “So that assurance, I think, should help clarify any question about faculty.”
McCarthy also added that the buyer’s intention is to match current salary rates. “No one is going backward,” he said, but “it’s difficult to say benefits will be exactly the same in a company this size.”
Donna Balducci, who works in the WCC student center, said she felt “marginalized” as a staff employee — a group often left out of the conversation.
“I’m always hearing about faculty, and it’s disheartening to me as a staff member with credentials and who has invested years in a school I love,” she said.
While the administration referred to both faculty and staff more often after that note, Halpern still pressed about the issue of secrecy during this process.
“It is the norm that the faculty be deeply involved in the decision making,” he said. “Someone who is not part of our faculty will be making those decisions and we will be told afterward.”
Other professors echoed this sentiment.
“To not be consulted and to not be part of this process is very frustrating,” Brooks Rice said. “I understand changes need to be made in order to function, but there is a wealth of experience in this room that has not been consulted.”
Why WCC stood out to Kaiwen
This wealth of experience was a central factor of influence on Kaiwen as the company decided to make a bid on the choir school, according to Mark Solomon, senior associate vice president for legal affairs.
He said the buyer was not impressed by “just the brand, but also the people.”
“They’re saying, ‘Work with us,’” he said. “The idea here is that they don’t want your help, they need your help.”
McCarthy added, “We have a valuable place here, and the faculty and staff are part of that value.” However, he also recognized that Kaiwen will “have to hire other employees who are core to the operation.”
Livingston, who was brought onto the project two months ago, said he too values faculty, staff and student contribution.
“I don’t want to do that in a vacuum,” he said. “I want to do that with input, with insight. I want to do that in a way that is a representation, a reflection of the great traditions of this institution and to achieve even greater excellence if you can imagine that and for it to be able to pay for itself.”
To increase profits, Xie said a healthy ratio of American and international students must come to campus. He mentioned that the student populace at well-known American music conservatories Berklee and Juilliard is over 20 percent international students, “but at WCC, it’s single digits.”
Chinese students pay tuition in cash, which would also strengthen Westminster’s financial health, Xie said.
Since Rider and Kaiwen have not yet reached a binding agreement, Onofrio discussed what would happen to American students who receive financial aid, grants and scholarships if the transaction were to fall through or be delayed. He said, “As long as WCC is part of Rider University, those tuition fees and structures will apply to WCC.”
Kate Smith, sophomore music major, said she trusts the administration to do what is best for the school, its students and continued legacy.
“I’m excited to see what is going to happen,” Smith said. “There has been a lot of uncertainty, so it’s finally exciting to hear that someone is looking, and there’s a lot of hope. There’s a future.”
She said that she has had a sunny outlook on the situation since the March 2017 announcement to sell the school.
“I was pretty positive at first,” she said. “We obviously didn’t want to merge because that would have been detrimental to our environment here, so it was exciting to hear that there was another option rather than closing or merging. I’ve been pretty optimistic the whole time. I’ve had faith in the administration because they’re pretty responsible.”
Senior political science major Kenny Dillon is troubled by the process, however.
“I’m concerned for the fate of Westminster, but also for Rider as a whole,” he said. “This idea was poorly thought out.”
Livingston said, “It’s in all of our best interests to get this done as soon as we can but this is a challenging and complicated process, and I don’t think it is, at this point, fruitful to try to ballpark or name a date by which it would be done. We’re doing it as well as can as quickly as we can, but this is a very significant moment in the history of WCC and Kaiwen Education Academy.”
During the evening parents’ forum, one mother questioned the progress of the sale as Rider faces three lawsuits, including one filed by the Princeton Theological Seminary last month seeking to halt the sale to Kaiwen.
“The particular lawsuit seeks to challenge whether or not they will be owed any compensation if Rider, in fact, does transfer WCC to Kaiwen,” Onofrio said. “As with any lawsuit, I cannot comment on the basis or the merits of such, and it will be decided by the courts.”
Because none of these suits have been settled and the administration does not know if they will impede upon the transaction process, Onofrio said Rider has discussed with the buyer the possibility of the sale not being finalized by July 1.
“At this point, we are moving forward that Rider University is prepared to continue operating WCC until the moment of transfer,” he said. “At the point of transfer, it will become independent and a partner with Kaiwen Education.”
Additional reporting by Lauren Lavelle and Megan Lupo