April 4, 2018

Westminster Transfer to Chinese Company Is Delayed

By Anne Levin

Last week’s announcement that the transfer of ownership of Westminster Choir College from Rider University to Beijing Kaiwen Educational Technology Company is taking longer than expected came as no surprise to those who have been opposed to the move. University President Gregory G. Dell’Omo’s letter to the school community said that the $40 million deal is behind schedule, meaning Rider will continue to run Westminster for the next school year.

“When we initially started this process last year, we had hoped that the transition could begin this summer,” Dell’Omo wrote. “As we progressed, it became clear that Rider will continue to operate Westminster after August 31, 2018.”

Rider, which took over Westminster in 1992, made the decision to sell the prestigious Princeton choral college, along with Westminster Conservatory and Westminster Continuing Education, last year. Kaiwen, a steel company which now operates K-12 schools in China, was chosen as the new owner in February.

The end of June 2018 was targeted for closure of the deal. As part of the transition process, the University sent Westminster faculty layoff notices last October. Those notices have now been withdrawn, and are likely to be re-issued at the beginning of the next academic year, Dell’Omo said in his letter.

Members of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who have been strongly opposed to the transaction, said it is telling that the letter came just before an arbitration challenging the layoff as improper. “WIthout doubt, this is because he [Dell’Omo] knew the administration would have lost their case,” the AAUP wrote in a statement on March 27. In a second and more detailed statement sent out to members, the AAUP reiterated that faculty and other groups had already been told that Rider would continue to run Westminster in the next academic year.

“The timing of rescinding the layoff notices is curious,” said Elizabeth Scheiber, AAUP chapter president, in an email. “It seems like they knew or suspected that they would be rescinding layoffs but chose to wait until the very week we were supposed to arbitrate.”

Bruce Afran, attorney for one of two pending lawsuits related to the transfer of Westminster, said Dell’Omo’s notice is evidence that “the parties are all recognizing the unlikeliness of this transaction. This is for many reasons — the lawsuits pending, and the fact that this is essentially a steel company that recently acquired a minority interest in charter schools in China.”

But Dell’Omo’s letter has a positive side, Afran said. “It does help restore stability to the Choir College. I’m hopeful that students considering Westminster will recognize that the school is back to normal, and they should continue to apply.”

Scheiber said, “We are happy to have a reprieve for our members with assurance of employment next year, but we continue to be disheartened by the way the administration is operating with secrecy and not allowing stakeholders to participate in the process.”

One of the AAUP’s letters to members details due diligence that questions some of the assurances made by Rider administration and Kaiwen representatives. “In order to open numerous new for-profit K-12 schools in China, Kaiwen must raise massive amounts of new capital, yet the company’s finances are precarious, it is deeply in debt, and it has failed to show a profit in the two years it has been in the business of education,” the letter reads. “Kaiwen’s creditors — the organizations and individuals who fund the company with their money — do so not because of a passion for choral music, but because they seek a return on their investment. What will happen to Westminster once they demand repayment? We believe it is time to halt this flawed process and convene all Westminster stakeholders in order to develop a realistic, sustainable future for this extraordinary treasure.”

Yet not all involved in the situation anticipate an unfavorable scenario. In a letter to the Rider News last week, Westminster piano professor Ingrid Clarfield wrote, “Your readers need to know that there are many of us who feel there are several reasons to be positive about the sale. I am hoping other faculty and staff who feel the same way will express their strong optimistic feelings, too.” Clarfield quotes Xu Guangyu, the chairman of the Kaiwen company, as saying, “We will inherit and develop Westminster, so that not only is Westminster useful to us, but we are also useful to them.”