September 12, 2018

Another Lawsuit Filed Naming Rider, Others in Westminster Sale

By Anne Levin

A new lawsuit has been filed by opponents of Rider University’s proposed sale of Westminster Choir College to a company they say is owned by the government of China and threatens the music school’s academic freedom.

Seven people are plaintiffs in the suit filed in New Jersey Superior Court this week. It names Rider, the Westminster Choir College Acquisition Corporation, and Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Co., Ltd., claiming that the proposed sale is “a disguised takeover of an American college by the Chinese government,” said Bruce Afran, attorney for the Westminster Foundation, in a press release. The Foundation is made up of alumni and supporters working to maintain the choir college and protect its independence.

The recent complaint joins plaintiffs with an existing lawsuit filed by Princeton Theological Seminary, which also seeks to block the sale, contending that under the terms of a 1935 trust that funded the Choir College’s campus and buildings, such a transaction is illegal because it does not continue the mission of sacred music education.

The 92-year-old Choir College, which is located on a 22-acre campus in Princeton, was merged with Lawrenceville-based Rider in 1991. Rider announced this past June that it planned to sell Westminster for $40 million to Beijing Kaiwen. The Chinese company was known as a steel and engineering firm until January of this year, when its name was changed to an education company.

“Beijing Kaiwen is a subsidiary of Badachu Holdings Group, a wholly-owned unit of the Chinese government,” said Afran. “This proposed sale will endanger Westminster’s long tradition of academic freedom.”

The complaint alleges that Beijing Kaiwen has created a sham nonprofit to conceal the true ownership of the school after the takeover by its parent Badachu, a Chinese government-owned investment group. “Never before has an American college or university come under the direct control of an authoritarian foreign government,” said Constance Fee, an alumna of Westminster and faculty member at Roberts Wesleyan College. Fee is president of the Westminster Foundation and is among the plaintiffs in the suit.

In a recent filing with the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, Beijing Kaiwen was required to provide supplemental information about its purchase of Westminster Choir College. The response revealed that Westminster’s endowment, the campus, and all College assets would also be transferred to Beijing Kaiwen. “Not only will Westminster come under the direct control of the Chinese government but its endowment will be transferred to the books of Beijing Kaiwen, a violation of IRS regulations that require charitable endowments to be controlled by nonprofit organizations,” said Fee.

The suit maintains that the sale could threaten national security, because it gives the Chinese government a base in Princeton, where much academic and defense research is conducted. “We know that members of Congress have been making inquiries about this transaction with the U.S. Department of Education,” Afran said.

Under federal and state law, Rider does not have the power to sell Westminster to a commercial or Chinese government-controlled entity with no experience in higher education of professional music training, the complaint alleges. Westminster is renowned as a professional training center of singers, conductors, and music educators. The school’s choir performs with major musical organizations such as The New York Philharmonic and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Westminster Choir has been invited on a courtesy tour of China by Kaiwen but we understand that its concert repertoire must be approved by the Chinese government, a governmental intervention never before imposed on Westminster or its performing groups,” said Fee. “Those of us who cherish academic and artistic freedom cannot sit by while an authoritarian government begins to control of American colleges and universities.”

Rider University did not respond to a request for comment at press time.