January 8, 2019

Everyone Who Cares About Westminster Should Get Behind Solution on the Table

To the Editor:

In 1989, my mother, Katharine O’Neil Bidwell and her cousin, Elsie Hillman, sat in a Westminster Choir College board meeting wringing their hands. The realities facing the tiny choir conservatory with its small classes, one-on-one instruction and challenging fundraising demographic made it clear that Westminster needed a partner or it would close.

My mother and aunt had a vested interest in keeping the college alive. Their grandmother (my great-grandmother), Katharine Houk Talbott, was Westminster’s first benefactor in Dayton, Ohio. An opera singer, she helped create the school; Westminster’s Talbott Library is named after her. The Talbott family has endowed scholarships and family members have served on the boards of Westminster and Rider University. Aunt Elsie and Uncle Henry’s legacy lives on in Hillman Hall in Westminster’s Cullen Center. Their foundation endowed a fund that supports recruiting and performance activities. The Bidwell endowment, named for my mother, supports training for opera singers.

In the early 90s, Rider University stepped up. Then-President Bart Luedeke envisioned Rider having a world-class performing arts program, and Westminster merged with Rider in 1992. My mother and Aunt Elsie were thrilled, and relieved.

In 2011, I joined the Rider Board of Trustees. Rider’s investments in Westminster’s physical plant and programs, enrollment, fundraising, and faculty salaries have been significant, but it was never an easy merger between two campuses with distinctive cultures. Meanwhile, recent changes in New Jersey’s TAP grants, a shrinking demographic of high school graduates, competition from public universities, and increasing infrastructure costs mean Rider can’t afford to operate Westminster.

Hired by Rider in 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers contacted over 275 organizations — universities, colleges, conservatories, orchestras — and no domestic institution offered to run WCC in Princeton.

Kaiwen Education made an offer to maintain Westminster as a not-for-profit college run by an independent board that would scrupulously follow U.S. laws and practices. This kind of partnership could well be a model for things to come — a new, big idea, the outside-the-box thinking that my mother and Elsie Hillman were engaged in back in 1989.

But opponents of the transfer have filed lawsuits. Their hyperbolic attacks scare people about alleged threats to academic freedom and even national security. They stoke fears that Kaiwen will close the campus or turn Westminster into something other than a choir college, even though signed agreements, rules of licensure, and accreditation and US law bar this. These lawsuits seem designed to tie up the transfer process past the June 2019 closing deadline. Opponents offer no serious alternative that provides sufficient financial resources to operate Westminster independently. Their negative, headline-grabbing narrative brings Westminster no closer to security.

It’s time for everyone who cares about preserving Westminster Choir College to get behind the one solution on the table. Let’s not jeopardize the future of an institution that deserves better. Let Westminster once again get attention for music, not discord that threatens the school’s very existence.

Molly O’Neil Frank

New York City

The writer serves as a trustee of several arts and educational institutions.