August 23, 2017

Cautious Optimism About Westminster Buyer

The announcement last week that Rider University is negotiating with an “international partner” to purchase Westminster Choir College and keep it in Princeton has students, faculty, alumni, and supporters of the music school hopeful that its future is secure. But they are not taking the news for granted.

“We are cautiously optimistic. We just have to be careful to not count on anything until we know what the facts are,” said Constance Fee, who heads the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton. “The most important thing I read in the letter was that whoever these people are, this international organization would maintain the campus in Princeton. That has been our whole focus. We have no indication of what that would mean in terms of whether we are an independent institution, do we have our own board, own faculty, and programs? There is no way to know. I have to keep a rein on my hope that this might be what we know, but we don’t.”

In an effort to stem a growing financial loss, Rider’s board voted in March to sell the Princeton campus of Westminster, which it has owned since 1991. At the time, Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo said the priority was to find a buyer that would keep Westminster in Princeton, though that wasn’t the only option.

Since then, the Coalition was formed. They hired attorney Bruce Afran, who filed a lawsuit in June claiming that, based on the 1991 merger agreement, Rider has no legal right to sell the music school. An amendment to the suit stated that Rider’s claimed $10 million annual deficit was not caused by Westminster.

On August 17, Mr. Dell’Omo sent an email to the college community announcing that a potential buyer had been found. He declined to identify the buyer, but wrote, “After reviewing proposals over the last several weeks, the Board will now begin negotiations and due diligence with the selected potential partner.”

According to Rider spokesperson Kristine Brown, “This selection is the continuation of the process begun in March with formal outreach to approximately 280 entities Й. As we have said throughout this process, our goal was to identify a partner that is best positioned to make the necessary investments in and build upon Westminster’s world-class curriculum and rich legacy in Princeton.

“The University remains encouraged by our strong progress to date, accomplished in accordance with our guiding principles, including the commitment to maintain our existing programs, faculty, and administration. Please know that much work still remains, and as this process moves forward, it’s critical that negotiations remain confidential between Rider and the selected potential partner. We appreciate your continued patience and promise to keep the University community informed as we move into the next phase of this important process.”

The Westminster faculty was informed of the potential sale at a meeting on the campus last week. No precise time table was announced for the transaction, and no further details were given as to the identity of the purchaser.

“Is it an educational institution? A business? They haven’t told us much of anything,” said Ms. Fee, who is a Westminster alumnus and voice teacher at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y. “Friends who were at the announcement said it was positive but vague. But the administrative people were very enthusiastic. If it is something that could benefit both schools, I think it would be more than we could hope for.”

The news “wasn’t what we expected,” she continued. “We thought there was going to be a merger with some other university in America. It is an odd mix of encouraging and unsettling at the same time. But a couple of months ago, we thought both schools were going under.”

The priority is for the agreement to be a lasting one. “We’re very concerned that the school not just be maintained for a little while,” Ms. Fee said. “We’re concerned that it be maintained for the duration. We don’t want to go through this again.”