By Stephen Neukam
Amid a peaceful protest and confrontations with university officials, Westminster Choir College (WCC) students anxiously wanted to learn one thing: where their academic futures lie.
That was the goal when a group of around 75 students and protestors gathered outside the Fine Arts Center (FA) on Sept. 24, holding signs that pleaded for WCC to remain in Princeton.
Victoria Vazquez, a junior sacred music and voice performance major, was jaded by her experience in her future academic home.
“It kind of looks like a jail in [the FA],” said Vazquez. “The lighting is really painful and the hallways are really small — it’s not exactly inspiring for music-making.”
Under Rider’s current consolidation plan, all students, staff and faculty at WCC will be moved to the Lawrenceville campus in September 2020. This plan came in the aftermath of a lengthy attempt to sell the choir college to a Chinese company that was aborted in July.
When WCC students entered the Lawrenceville campus they did not plan on entering the FA. After failing to gain access to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who visited campus on the same day, the students planned to take a picture in front of the FA and to silently enter the building to see their proposed home, according to freshman musical education and sacred music major Jordan Klotz.
According to Vazquez, Public Safety officers and university officials barred them from entering the building and cited the fire safety code as the reason.
Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Planning and Secretary to the Board Debbie Stasolla, who was at the FA and helped stop the students from entering, said that she was concerned about the safety of the students entering the building in large numbers.
“I expressed concern regarding the rather large number of people walking as a large group throughout the building… from a safety perspective given the large size and the potential disruption to classes and offices,” said Stasolla.
Klotz said that some of the students on the Lawrenceville campus came and asked the protestors questions, but a number of them mocked and laughed at the demonstration.
Perhaps more alarming, according to Klotz, was the treatment that Public Safety officials gave to the students.
“[A Public Safety officer] told his tour group that they ‘would have to grow up and learn to live with the other Rider students,’ or something of the sorts,” said Klotz.
Stasolla said that she and Public Safety Director James Waldon were taking the issue “seriously” and are following up with the officers.
“We all must be sensitive to how we express ourselves with one another and out of respect for one another given the complexities of the transition and the very understandable emotions that are being experienced as a result,” Stasolla said.
Senior music education major Max Brey was frustrated that the university “was under the assumption that we were going to be a problem.”
Of paramount concern for the students was the quality of the facilities on the Lawrenceville campus. Most of the infrastructure at WCC is highly specialized and unique to the needs of a choir college.
Rider has been vague on proposed renovations and additions to facilities for the students, with the latest indication coming from a statement to The Rider News by Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown. She alluded to changes to Omega House, Gill Chapel, Moore Library and the FAC.
The plans for renovations are being handled by the Fine Arts Facility Working Group, part of the administration’s Campus Transition Team. The group currently has no students from either campus on it, according to Brown.
“There are not facilities [at Rider] that are appropriate for our studies,” said Vazquez. “I can’t play the oboe as loud as I want to when there is a political science class going on.”
Brey, who helped organize the protest, shared the same concerns as Vazquez.
“This building is built for something, and it’s not us,” Brey said. “The facilities are fine [for the current programs.]”
Students called into question the availability of practice rooms, space for the over 100 pianos on the Princeton campus and other conditions that affect their quality of education.
Despite the long saga that has engulfed WCC, from the decision to sell the school, a tumultuous legal battle that continues today, significant dips in enrollment and donations and tensions between the school and the administration, Klotz said the spirit of WCC remained.
Klotz said he chose WCC knowing that its future was in limbo. However, he found such a love for the school that not even the current consolidation plans would hinder him from committing to the choir college.
“Even this would not deter me from coming [to WCC],” said Klotz. “Simply because there is such an amazing community here of musicians and the faculty is truly world-class.”
Brey explained that his three years at WCC had been unique in the fact that each time he went home to see family, he would have to answer questions about whether his school was still open or not.
“That’s not the question that people usually get when they go home from school,” said Brey. “I have to say, ‘yes’ and explain [the situation.]”
Klotz, Vazquez and Brey all emphasized that they had no problem with the students on the Lawrenceville campus or the university in general. However, given the steps that were taken by the administration to find a solution for the school, there is obvious strain on the relationship.
Undeterred by the past and focused on the future, the students remain “deeply committed to each other and recognize that we are getting probably the best education in the field,” said Brey.
“One semester, or two semesters, at [WCC] is still more worth it to me than anything else.”