After 20 years, Robert L. Annis, dean and director of Rider University’s Westminster College of the Arts, is retiring. Mr. Annis, 64, will leave his post at the campus on Walnut Lane at the end of this year.
“It was a difficult decision,” he said. “I’ll miss it, absolutely. Twenty years is a good run. It’s been very satisfying for me. But it’s also time for the institution to bring someone in that can take them to the next level.”
Just who that person will be has yet to be decided. In the meantime, Mr. Annis took time recently to reflect on two decades of service. When he arrived at Westminster in 1994, the school was in the second year of its merger with Rider University in Lawrenceville, a move that saved the Westminster Choir College from financial disaster and broadened Rider’s scope by adding a range of cultural programs.
“The reason for the merger was that Westminster was struggling,” Mr. Annis said. “The first challenge was just to stabilize. Next was to grow the enrollment, raise money for scholarships and restricted funds and facilities. Those were huge challenges, especially in the nineties. Plus, I came to an institution that had a pretty strong heritage. I had to nurture that, evolve that, and grow it as needed. That happens not just by one individual, but also by faculty and students.”
Rider’s College of the Arts was created seven years ago by integrating Westminster Choir College and its community music school, Westminster Conservatory, with Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts. Students now shuttle regularly between the Princeton and Lawrenceville campuses. “It really is one institution now,” Mr. Annis said.
“Over time,” he continued, “policies and procedures had to be linked. And this has always been based on stabilizing the Choir College while following its heritage. For Rider, it has enhanced its identity.”
Despite widespread economic woes in recent years, Mr. Annis said enrollment in arts programs at Rider has been growing. “Students are still passionate about music and the arts. For us, that’s terrific,” he said. “The Westminster Symphonic Choir is not only booked through 2015, but already getting asked about 2016.”
Mr. Annis said the community-based Westminster Conservatory is busy with 3,000 students and four satellite programs. “The Conservatory has been around for awhile. From what I’ve read, Einstein even played violin in its community orchestra,” he said.
Westminster’s aging campus on Walnut Lane has been given some notable upgrades during Mr. Annis’s tenure. “Erdman Hall, one of the four original buildings, was completely renovated,” he said. “We added fire safety to all of the buildings and have made great progress on deferred maintenance and upgrading. We have updated out practice rooms, added voice and keyboard labs, and a parking lot. We’re putting up our first new campus building since 1975 and we’re raising funds to renovate The Playhouse. So it’s not to say we are by any means done, but we have made good progress from an infrastructure and renovation standpoint and a new building.”
The college was founded in 1926 in Ohio, but made a fortuitous move to Princeton in the early 1930s. “We’re sitting in a very vibrant part of the country, between New York and Philadelphia, and we find our students who want to go be music educators in public schools are able to find positions,” Mr. Annis said. “But that’s not the case in all 50 states. The arts are taking hits in the economy in general.”
Mr. Annis’s wife Ellen Vickers, who teaches seventh grade English at John Witherspoon Middle School, will retire in June. The couple plan to move to Cape Cod. “We’ll travel, and we’ll both do a little more music,” said Mr. Annis, who is a professional clarinetist. “And I might do some writing. But this is a definitive change. It’s hard, but I feel the institution is stable, important, and has a real opportunity for the future.”