November 7, 2018

Controversies Continue Over the Future Of Westminster Choir College

By Anne Levin

In the continuing saga surrounding the future of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, those opposed to Rider’s sale of Westminster to a Chinese for-profit company remain committed to pursuing legal action that would prevent the transaction from going through. Others who support the sale have suggested that the two lawsuits, which challenge Rider’s right to sell, are endangering the prestigious music school’s ability to flourish in the future.

In order for the sale to Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology to proceed, the lawsuits would have to be resolved. In addition, Rider needs approval from the New Jersey Secretary of the Department of Higher Education and the New Jersey Secretary of State. Another key component is the sanctioning of the National  Association of Schools of Music (NASM).

“There are a whole slew of accreditation issues,” said Jeffrey Halpern, an associate professor in Rider’s Department of Sociology and a spokesperson for the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). “There is no way we see this being resolved within the deadline, which is July 1, 2018. All of the impediments would have to be cleared. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a civil suit would find that laughable.”

According to Larry Livingston, interim president of Kaiwen’s Westminster Choir College Acquisition Corporation, the accreditation is proceeding as normal but hitting delays because of Westminster’s changing status. The process “involves elaborate reports, a site visit, and things typical of what every school goes through,” he said. “There is no possibility that it will be fully accredited until the transaction closes. But we’re working on it and there is no evidence at all that NASM

is holding up the issue.”

On October 29, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo met with Westminster faculty and listed the obstacles that stand in the way of closing the sale. The following day, Dell’Omo delivered layoff notices to the schools’s teaching staff. “In previous communications President Dell’Omo had assured the Westminster community that layoff notices were a mere formality and that all staff and faculty would receive offers of employment from Kaiwen shortly after receiving the notice of layoff,” reads the AAUP statement. “During the meeting the faculty learned that because of uncertainties surrounding the viability of the deal, no offers of employment from Kaiwen are immediately forthcoming.”

Livingston said Tuesday that a letter to the faculty was being prepared, “reiterating our enthusiasm for this transaction, our confidence that it will close, and our excitement about where we go once we become an independent institution.” Having previously served in leadership roles at three other colleges of music, Livingston said he has been through the accreditation process several times. “It is always cumbersome and complicated. The first reaction is always deferral, and then through a series of steps it finally happens. We’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do.”

Rider’s chapter of the AAUP is filing a grievance with the union, saying layoffs can only occur in cases of “financial exigency or the demonstrated financial need to eliminate or curtail programs or courses of instruction to protect the well-being of the University.” Rider had a surplus in the last fiscal year and a $5.5 million increase in net assets, said Halpern.

Bruce Afran, the attorney representing plaintiffs in the two lawsuits, said the layoff notices are “simply a letter required under the AAUP agreement to warn faculty it is possible contracts won’t be renewed. But the school is going on, and the faculty will still be employed. All of this is because of the pointless controversy that has been caused by this issue.”

Enrollment at Westminster has dropped. The Westminster Foundation, made up of alumni, faculty, and supporters of the choir college, recently authorized a financial allocation to aid with recruitment, and another allocation is underway. Afran declined to say how much the Foundation has raised for the effort.

“This was necessary because Rider has dropped the ball,” he said. “We’re down by about half, but it’s a small school and it can be made up. There is still a great demand for this type of education. This is what happens to colleges when there are controversies.”

Livingston said he is confident that Kaiwen, a bridge company which until a few months ago was not involved in education, is committed to Westminster’s future. “It’s true that their history isn’t about higher education, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made a commitment to the future. They are well aware that they need to rely on people who are experienced and veterans in the field,” he said. “They’re not approaching this in some naive, presumptuous way. They want it to succeed. Their goal is to form a future of an institution that is academically strong and financially viable.”

Afran said it is unlikely that the courts will ever approve the proposed sale, “and Rider and Kaiwen know that. And the state of New Jersey is not going to approve licensing for a college that comes under the domination of an authoritarian foreign dictatorship. Academic freedom must be guaranteed, and this would be controlled by the government of China, which would interfere with academic freedom.”