Westminster parents share mixed emotions on school sale

By Shanna O’Mara

Jeffrey Halpern, the AAUP’s chief negotiator, talks to reporters about Rider’s recent layoff announcement to Westminster, in anticipation of the school’s purchase by a new institution.

Westminster Choir College (WCC) parents requested a forum with Rider’s administration and were given the opportunity to ask the tough questions during Family Weekend, under the condition that media be kept outside the room. The conversation aimed to clarify rumors and uncertainty regarding the sale of the world-renowned institution to an unnamed Asian for-profit organization.

The Parents of Enrolled Westminster Students group met with President Gregory Dell’Omo, Dean of Westminster College of the Arts (WCA) Marshall Onofrio, Board of Trustees chairman Robert Schimek and general counsel Mark Solomon on Nov. 4 to discuss the future of the choir school.

Erin Mahon, mother of a WCC sophomore, said she wrote 10 letters since December 2016 to the president before receiving a response a few weeks ago. She created a Facebook page for Westminster parents which quickly gained traction, accepting over 100 members within two weeks, she said.

“My goal is to let the administration know we are not the bad guys, and we pay the bills and you need to answer to us,” Mahon said.

WCC parents were invited to the forum held in Hillman Hall on the Princeton campus.

Mahon said as parents filed into their seats, Dell’Omo asked them to decide whether or not the press should be allowed in the room. “The majority voted for you to come in, myself included,” she told The Rider News reporter. A group that represented about a third of the parents then argued that several people were uncomfortable with media presence and wanted the opportunity to speak freely without being recorded, Mahon said.

“As their leader, I had to respect that,” she said. “We had another vote and the majority said you couldn’t come in.”

The reporter was not allowed in the room to advocate on behalf of the importance of news coverage before the second vote because “the parents requested this meeting, so it was their call,” university spokeswoman Kristine Brown said. “This event was not open to the Rider community.” However, the event was published on the Family Weekend Schedule with no restrictions or exclusions.

Parents asked that “this meeting be held only for parents, without our students, without media, only parents, in order for all parties to feel comfortable and generate an open, honest discussion about any and all concerns we had for our children’s futures,” Mahon said.

In the meeting, the group discussed the stage of the negotiations, accreditation requirements and personal graduation concerns, among other issues.

“There were a lot of high emotions,” said Krista Aguirre, parent of a Westminster freshman. “A lot of the parents are really frustrated and feel very ill-informed.”

“We need to trust Rider to make an acquisition of a potential buyer that wants to operate the school, but they haven’t given us any reason to trust,” Mahon said. “I want to drink the Kool-Aid and believe, but you have to prove it to me. That’s how the majority of us is. It needs to be proven, and they haven’t done that yet, so I demanded a meeting. I shouldn’t have had to demand a meeting. It should have been offered from the beginning.”

While some parents left during the forum, shaking their heads as they huffed and headed for the door, others stayed for three more hours and left the room with a more positive outlook.

“I think they’re working hard to resolve all the issues,” said parent Libby Markowitz. “It really sounds like, if it goes through, there will be great opportunity internationally for the students and increased funding. I’m walking away optimistic. I can live well with uncertainty.”

A WCC professor in the lobby asked one fleeting father if the meeting had finished as the man left the room. “Is it done?” he snorted. “No, but I am.” Smacking the silver automated door button on the wall,  he already had a cigarette resting on his bottom lip by the time he stepped outside.

Others were pleased with the result of the discussion, praising the administration for inviting the parents to speak their minds.

“I felt that we got a little bit of clarity on what the next couple of years are going to look like for the current students who are here,” said Aguirre. “Obviously there is still a lot of uncertainty with the potential merger and sale to this unknown Asian institution. As a parent, I feel a little bit better after the meeting. I definitely don’t have all of my questions answered, but I respect the fact that they gave us the opportunity to ask.”

Mahon emphasized parents’ significant roles, arguing that they need to have enough information to calm and protect their children during a time when students are receiving conflicting information, some even being told to “get out” by uneasy professors, she said.

Sophomore music education major Eric Lyons had similar feelings. He said he and classmates are “experiencing whiplash trying to keep up.”

“President Dell’Omo will say something like, ‘Oh, don’t worry. It’s all going to be okay.’ Then the faculty will interpret what he is saying and give us what we believe to be more truthful information,” Lyons said. “So the president says we’ll be OK, but the faculty says, ‘No guys. You’re not OK.’”

Mahon suggested the professors stick to teaching rather than focusing on the bigger picture drama.

“I understand why the faculty is upset,” she said. “Their future is unknown. I get it, but the [American Association of University Professors] AAUP needs to handle that. They need to leave that out of our children’s day-to-day life.”

The president, WCA dean, Board chairman and university attorney spoke with WCC faculty on Nov. 2 during a meeting which The Rider News was initially barred. Two Westminster professors escorted the reporters in as the meeting was concluding.

Communication professor Pamela Brown, an expert on communication law, said, “I think we are seeing the development of a pattern of secrecy that is not in the best interests of our campus community, and certainly not the way to build trust between the administration and the community.”

The AAUP’s chief negotiator, Jeffrey Halpern, held a press conference that same day with union president Elizabeth Scheiber.

He said the union will file a grievance arguing that the layoffs fail to meet contractual requirements. The agreement mandates some “financial exigency or the demonstrated financial need to eliminate or curtail programs or courses of instruction to protect the well-being of the university” in order to distribute layoff notices. However, Halpern said, Rider’s independent audited financial statement had a $5.5 million increase in net assets this year.

Despite the conflict and confusion, many students agree that protecting the school’s legacy is the top priority as a potential sale or closure lingers.

“The only thing that can be said is that the reason we’re fighting so hard is because this place is worth the fight,” Lyons said.

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