By Felicia Roehm
When Westminster Choir College (WCC) merged with Rider University in 1992, it maintained its own Princeton campus and world-renowned status. But Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo’s unsuccessful attempt to sell the school in 2018, and his subsequent decision to move all WCC students and classes to Lawrenceville in 2020 in hopes to sell the valuable Princeton land, have been controversial to say the least.
Two Westminster students on the board of Sigma Alpha Iota, Westminster’s professional music sorority, recently explained to The Rider News that they are extremely disappointed with the recent changes that make them feel less like WCC students. They both chose to go to Westminster for the name, the history and traditions, but many of those traditions are being demolished. Kyra Pitagno, senior voice performance major at WCC and president of Sigma Alpha Iota, expressed her concerns for the path that Rider’s administration has set for the historic choir college.
“It feels very much like the culture of Westminster is trying to be diminished, as a student who’s a senior, who has been here for years,” said Pitagno. “I have just seen a massive decline in the prioritization.”
Ashley LiBrizzi, a junior vocal performance and sacred music major who is also on the executive board of Sigma Alpha Iota, feels that when Rider took over Westminster, the university had no idea what it was inheriting. “I think they definitely need to educate themselves on Westminster because I really don’t think they know what they have,” LiBrizzi said of Rider’s administration.
One of the traditions abolished was the separate commencement ceremony at Princeton Chapel. The removal of this tradition means Pitagno and LiBrizzi have a different experience than pior Westminster students. “It just doesn’t make us feel like we’re a part of Westminster Choir College anymore,” said LiBrizzi.
In a Sept. 6th interview with The Rider News, Dell’Omo expressed his viewpoint on the matter.
“It’s no different than any other program that we say ‘This has potential; let’s figure out how to grow it and make more investments as it grows.’ We’ve got to get beyond saying this is a special problem,” Dell’Omo said. “It’s been a part of Rider University for 30-plus years now, and we treat it like it’s any other program — understanding that it has a unique history, has a unique sort of presence. We get all that, but it’s not a Westminster issue, it’s a Rider University issue.”
When Dell’Omo made the decision to move WCC to Lawrenceville, Pitagno and LiBrizzi were promised by the former Dean of Westminster Dr. Marshall Onofrio that nothing would change. They believed they would still have separate graduation, travel around the world and their degrees would say Westminster Choir College instead of Rider University. Now, they are not giving international performances, graduation ceremonies are combined and the diplomas given to WCC graduates in May said Rider University instead of Westminster.
Charles Isben, who did an independent study of Westminster’s history, confirmed that new diplomas were given to the graduates; however, he hopes it was just a mistake and nothing more. “I’m inclined to think this was an unintentional error, instead of one final jab by the administration, the reason being that the corrected diplomas were printed on 11-by-14 [inch] paper, matching the diploma covers we were handed at commencement, whereas the Rider-only diplomas we received were printed on 8.5-by-11 [inch] paper. I hope this means Rider merely accidentally sent all of their students a Rider-only diploma — before realizing they had forgotten about the Westminster students — instead of hoping they could get away with breaking one more promise,” said Isben.
Pitagno and LiBrizzi exhibited similar fears.
Pitagno said, “We have no idea what could happen with our degree.”
LiBrizzi said, “And once again, that is extremely unfair, because they assured us that we were going to have all these traditions still, that we were going to have the name on the certificate, and like, now they’re just gaslighting us and doing whatever they want.”
LiBrizzi’s second major was sacred music, which was one of the 25 majors cut over the summer. “I was absolutely torn and extremely upset over it. I almost feel like they’re purposely trying to dissolve us in a way,” said LiBrizzi. “Westminster was historically built for sacred music; it was meant for church musicians. And the fact that the one major that Westminster was historically founded upon, sacred music, just got scrapped, like, that was just absolutely upsetting.”
Joel Phillips has been a professor at Westminster for almost 40 years and said that there has been less enrollments each year since Westminster was moved to Rider’s campus. Phillips said, “The dean’s call for workload estimated an expected 95 freshman and transfers to arrive in fall 2015, Dell’Omo’s first fall. At that time WCC was fully enrolled at around 430 students, which includes grad[uate] students.”
These numbers have decreased dramatically as Dell’Omo’s plans for the college were revealed, including an attempt to sell the historic choir college.
“As a result of these bombshell announcements and the ensuing uncertainties, instead of the expected fall 2016 enrollment, WCC enrolled only 62 freshmen. The uncertainties continued with lawsuits by students, faculty, donors, and alumni and a lawsuit filed by the Princeton Theological Seminary against Rider,” said Phillips.
Dell’Omo began to lay off faculty of Westminster hoping to sell it to another company; however, that deal was unsuccessful. Due to the changes and the undetermined future of Westminster, the fall 2017 enrollment was only 37 freshman students. “What has happened to WCC was entirely avoidable and the outcome totally predictable. The same leadership has made many other decisions that are just as terrible, and now Rider itself, not just WCC, is in serious financial difficulty,” said Phillips. Students were also promised that a wing would be added to the Fine Arts building just for Westminster students to practice and have a choral space of their own; however, that promise has not yet been fulfilled. Kroner Hall has been made into a living-learning community for Westminster students with practice rooms in the basement, but any other major is still able to live there.
Dell’Omo explained, “It’s just like any other program. You see programs starting to grow, you make the investments to continue that growth. I think we’ve done a lot to move them over here. … We continue to add more space, but we have to get the enrollments up.”
In March of 2022, the Rider News reported that in fall of 2021, only 16 Westminster freshmen joined Rider’s Lawrenceville campus, a 78% reduction from the 72 freshman enrolled in 2016, before Dell’Omo announced plans to sell the school.
In the fall of 2022 Westminster admitted only 18 freshmen with a total of 79 students receiving undergraduate degrees.
Pitagno and LiBrizzi are worried there may not be a future for Westminster.
“I am nervous that Westminster, worst case scenario, will have no future because the things that made Westminster stand out, and John Finley Williamson, the founder’s visions, are being so tampered with that I think incoming students will not see what made Westminster a place that so many musicians and music educators chose to study at,” said Pitagno.
Both Pitagno and LiBrizzi love Westminster and are extremely grateful for the professors who have stayed and have continued to show them what is special about WCC. It is one of the reasons why they are still here, and they both know it wouldn’t be the same without the incredible faculty.
“Rider University’s administration needs to understand our desperate attempts to save Westminster’s future by giving us the facilities we need, and by attempting to understand Westminster’s culture and Westminster’s legacy and history,” said Pitagno.