September 5, 2018

Second Forum About Westminster Floats Ideas for School’s Future

By Anne Levin

Keeping Westminster Choir College in the hands of an entity that understands its mission was the focus on an open discussion held by The Westminster Foundation at Nassau Presbyterian Church on August 29. The public forum was the second to be presented by the Foundation in recent months.

Rider University, which absorbed the famed choir college in 1991, plans to sell it to a Chinese company for $40 million. Those opposing the sale of the school to the Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Corporation say the company is ill equipped, financially and academically, to run the college. At least two lawsuits against Rider, related to the sale, are pending.

Various ideas were explored, including a proposal in which the town of Princeton would float a bond issue to purchase the school. Panelists included Rider Associate Professor Jeffrey Halpern, who is chief grievance officer for Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors; Rider Professor Gerald D. Klein; Westminster Professor Joel Phillips; and architect Joel Schwartz. The forum drew between 75 to 100 people, while more than 1,300 viewed it live on Facebook, according to Constance Fee, president of the Foundation.

“It was a hot summer night just before Labor Day weekend, so we were hoping to get 50 people, but we had more,” she said after the forum. “We didn’t expect anybody on Facebook, and we were pleasantly surprised. It just shows how important this issue is to the community.”

Phillips presented what he called the faculty perspective. “This is not about China. It’s just about this company, which is not qualified to run anything in higher education, in China or in the United States,” he said. “It’s simply not able to do that. It’s also not about Rider. Rider has been a fantastic partner for Westminster. What it is about is the [current] senior administration and board, who have selected this unsuitable suitor … and their attempt to liquidate $40 million from a place we believe to be priceless.”

Phillips compained that Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo and the board of trustees have not included faculty and other members of schools’ communities in the search process. Halpern added, “We have no ability to see what the finances of the new institution would be, since the details have been kept secret.”

Several members of the public asked questions and offered suggestions. Princeton resident Kip Cherry expressed concern about how the ongoing disagreements about the sale have affected enrollment. Halpern said that since Rider announced it was pursuing a sale of Westminster two years ago, recruitment has not suffered too much. “But in the present uncertainty, it would be unsustainable,” he added.

Fee said that further forums will be held every few months, as long as the uncertainty about Westminster’s future continues.

“We’ve got things in place so that if and when a hand is reached out, we can put it into motion,” she said. “We look like the destructive force here. But we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t have exhaustive efforts ongoing to get ready for a better solution. I can’t say what those things are, but we have names, people, and organizations ready to move ahead to help us. We continue our efforts to firm up Plan B, Plan C, and keep working on Plan D.”

The Foundation’s goal is to save the college and make sure it is stabilized. “We are researching development professionals to raise money to get the word out about enrollment, to do things it looks like Rider isn’t doing,” Fee said. “Kaiwen is not the problem. The plan is the problem. And as long as we have no assurances of any kind about what is in this deal, we will continue.”

Asked for comment on the forum and the status of the sale, Rider spokesperson Kristine Brown said, “Rider and Kaiwen have made steady progress towards completing the transaction and planning for the transition of Westminster Choir College. Earlier this month, Kaiwen announced the creation of Westminster Choir College Acquisition Corporation and the appointment of Larry Livingston as interim president — both exciting developments for the future of WCC. With the new school year beginning, we will be sharing more updates on our progress and providing our community with more information as we move forward.”