March 7, 2018

Some Westminster Faculty Are Encouraged After Weekend Meetings

By Anne Levin

Last weekend, representatives from the Chinese company to which Rider University has proposed transferring ownership of Westminster Choir College visited Westminster for meetings with faculty, staff, and students. Live-streamed sessions were also held for parents and alumni about Kaiwen Education Technology Company, which recently signed a non-binding, $40 million agreement with Rider for the Choir College, Westminster Conservatory of Music, and Westminster Continuing Education.

Having met the representatives, Westminster Dean Marshall Onofrio and Director of Choral Activities Joe Miller both expressed optimism in the proposed transaction. “I walked away from those meetings with a very positive sense of several things,” said Onofrio. “The partner is very dedicated to keeping Westminster in Princeton. They understand that the brand of Princeton is connected to the faculty, staff, and students.”

“I was just so happy to put some humanity to the process,” said Miller. “Actually having human beings to talk to rather than a press release was very helpful.”

But members of Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) remain skeptical about the situation. “After Sunday’s presentation, AAUP and the faculty in general still have a lot of doubts about the sale of Westminster Choir College and the ability of this buyer to run the place,” said Elizabeth Scheiber, the chapter president and a professor of French and Italian. “It was a nice, slick presentation. But nobody was actually from Kaiwen. They were lawyers. We didn’t meet the buyers. There were lots of issues about a for-profit being made into a nonprofit. They don’t seem to understand the structure of our university. We’re still looking into this. We are not convinced this is the right move, and we will continue to fight this sale.”

Onofrio has been involved in the process of finding a buyer for the renowned choir college since the plan was first announced by Rider’s president Gregory Dell’Omo last year. “I’m very pleased to tell you that from the beginning, the guiding principles started with, ‘We’re not going to close this place. We’re going to find a partner.’ And this offer really had the best potential for doing that,” he said.

Kaiwen is “committed to enhancing Westminster,” Onofrio said. “We have an international reputation based on performances with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and so on, and this partner wants to increase that presence, not only in China but throughout the world. They’re interested in us helping them with educational programming they do in China, and that’s very important because we already do that. We have alumni teaching all over.”

The Kaiwen representatives toured the Westminster campus, a fixture in Princeton since 1932. “They did a very detailed tour of the facilities, and they realize what is needed,” Onofrio said.

Miller said he wasn’t bothered by the fact that the visitors were lawyers rather than members of Kaiwen. “It was good to have someone who is working directly with the company to answer questions,” he said. “Put in black and white, they said they plan to rehire all of the faculty and staff, and pay and benefits would be similar to what we have now. It was put in writing, and that relaxed the atmosphere a bit. Of course, until it is all settled, no one will be completely relaxed.”

Miller admits to being initially unsure about the situation. “But having an infusion of energy and capital into the Choir College has always been intriguing to me,” he said. “Having the opportunity to have Westminster stand on its own and be its own entity is a great goal of mine. It would be great for us to be masters of our destiny. I’m certainly optimistic about this. To be able to rethink things to the way things are done today, in the 21st century, is very exciting to me.”

The proposed transaction is the subject of two lawsuits, one by alumni and the other by Princeton Theological Seminary.