November 8, 2017

Rider Sends Layoff Notices To Westminster Faculty, Spurring Union to Take Action

By Anne Levin

With the potential sale of Westminster Choir College (WCC) still pending, Rider University sent layoff notices last week to Westminster’s teaching staff informing them that the music school could close if the transaction does not go through.

Despite a letter to the University community from Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo stating that the notice was provided only “as part of a larger process intended to secure the future of WCC,” the Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) isn’t buying it. The chapter responded this week with an open letter to Dell’Omo asking that the University “change direction” from a plan to sell Westminster, with which it merged in 1992, to an unnamed, for-profit company that operates K-12 schools in Asia. (See this week’s Mailbox for the full text of the letter.)

At a press conference held on the Westminster campus last Thursday, Rider sociology professor and AAUP chief negotiator Jeffrey Halpern said the chapter intends to file a grievance within the next few weeks.

The press conference was held following separate meetings held by Dell’Omo, Dean of Westminster College of the Arts Marshall Onofrio, Rider Board Chair Robert Schimeck, and lawyer Mark Solomon, with faculty and students. The group also met with parents of Westminster students this past Saturday during the Choir College’s parents’ weekend.

Rider has posed narratives that the AAUP chapter thinks are incorrect and need to be challenged. Contrary to the University’s reports that it is seeking to sell Westminster in anticipation of a $10 to $14 million deficit, an audit “has nothing in it that says that,” said Halpern. “The giant deficit they talk about is always ‘one year away.’”

As for the suggestion that Westminster has been a financial burden for Rider, “This is also untrue,” said Halpern. “It is a music school, and music schools are never going to be sources of major cash for any institution. But this is not the source of any deep deficits. In the past two years, Westminster has had a small surplus. This college is at full enrollment, and has very strong donor support. We are not in dire straits.”

Another disputed narrative is that the layoff is merely a simple transition in which one employer takes over for another and the faculty and staff are not affected. “Our position is that there is no legally binding evidence that that’s true,” Halpern said. “We don’t know the name of the potential partner … to say there are no problems is like treating us like children. That’s what you say to a child when you don’t want to tell them you’re bankrupt or you’re getting divorced.”

The union was closely involved when Rider merged with Westminster in 1992. “But we have not been invited to be part of this or even given information,” said Halpern.

Halpern said this week that the AAUP chapter has hired an outside finance expert to review the packet provided by the University. “We’re doing our due diligence,” he said. “All of the faculty of Westminster’s jobs are on the line.” The letter sent to Rider’s Board of Trustees asking them to consider not selling may or may not have an impact. “We hope they’ll see that there are better pathways to success,” Halpern said. “In higher education, it’s not unusual to see a board change positions under pressure from the faculty. But we’ll see.”

Meanwhile, a lawsuit against Rider, filed in June by members of the Westminster community, is going forward. The suit states that Rider does not have the legal right to sell Westminster and make a profit on the sale, and that the 1992 merger agreement requires Rider to continue to operate Westminster except where there is a financial inability to do so.

“That is not the case here,” said attorney Bruce Afran, who is handling the suit. “This is essentially Rider trying to monetize Westminster for its own use.”

The suit will likely be expanded to include new claims, Afran said. “We won’t accept the current proposal they are floating because it is not the equivalent of operating a four-year nonprofit accredited college. A transaction in which a for-profit company would claim to operate Westminster through a so-called nonprofit division is legally impossible, because accredited colleges cannot be controlled by financial companies in the United States.”

Westminster’s Alumni Council is also active in trying to save the school. “We are very closely allied with the dean’s Leadership Council,” said Constance Fee, who is recent past president of the Alumni Council. “We are feeling that every time the administration speaks, there is another twist on this. What I’m missing is a statement from them, on an ongoing basis, about what’s happening. They’ll dribble a bit to students and another bit to faculty, but not to the Alumni Council at all. So we keep receiving conflicting, confusing messages that seem to change from day to day. As for the pink slips (layoff notices), they are very disconcerting.”

Kristine A. Brown, spokesperson for Rider, said, “As we have continuously told faculty, staff, students, and parents, the University is committed to positive change to secure a bright future for both Rider and Westminster Choir College. We recognize the critical role that our talented faculty play in making that a reality and advancing the goals of this institution. Rider is facing a number of challenges impacting our long-term sustainability, and we are doing what is necessary to address them. We are committed to an open dialogue and will continue to provide updates to the campus community.”