July 3, 2019

Rider Plans to Keep, Relocate Westminster

By Anne Levin

Rider University announced Monday that a $40 million agreement to sell Westminster Choir College to a Chinese company, Kaiwen Education, is off. Instead, the University plans to move the prestigious music school from its Princeton location to Rider‘s Lawrenceville campus beginning in September, 2020.

While those who have consistently opposed the sale to Kaiwen are expressing relief that the deal will not go through, there is considerable opposition to the consolidation plan. “What they want to do is simply illegal,” said attorney Bruce Afran, who is representing the nonprofit Westminster Foundation in efforts to save the school and keep it in Princeton. “So we will be moving in court to block this, as we have before.”

Rider’s plan would keep Westminster Choir College, Westminster Conservatory, and the Westminster Continuing Education programs on the 22-acre Princeton campus during the upcoming 2019-2020 academic year. The University has not specified what the Princeton property on Walnut Lane would become after the move.

“Those plans are just in beginning discussions,” said Rider spokesperson Kristine Brown, in an email on Tuesday. “If you recall, we were under an exclusivity agreement with Kaiwen until yesterday so no official plans are in place. However, it is our hope that we will sell the land and retain a portion of the campus for our use.”

Rider merged with Westminster in 1991, a time when the music school had serious financial problems. Rider invested in the school’s deteriorating buildings and provided financial support for the school’s performance tours. But in 2017, Rider announced its intention to sell Westminster, citing a projected deficit in Rider’s budget. The University’s Board of Trustees undertook an international search for an academic institution that would purchase the school and its campus, according to University President Gregory Dell’Omo. In February 2018, Rider announced a $40 million agreement to transfer ownership of Westminster to what was then called Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Co., Ltd., a Chinese bridge and steel company that had recently taken over two schools
in Beijing.

“Rider has been deceiving the public since the beginning of this. They didn’t make a good faith effort,” Afran said Monday. “They were trying to sell Westminster at market prices. They just mailed things out and were offering to sell. That is not a serious effort. They weren’t offering to give it to someone else to be the charitable steward, which is what they agreed to be in 1991.”

While colleges in the United States merge and affiliate, they don’t sell at market prices, Afran continued.  “And the idea that they can sell this campus and move Westminster, shoe-horning it into whatever they have in Lawrenceville, is monstrous. Their duty, when they merged in 1991, was to protect Westminster as an intact and operating school. There are no proper facilities for training opera and choral and conducting and organ students on the Rider campus.”

Ongoing lawsuits opposing the sale of Westminster to a foreign government have been filed during the past two years by the Westminster Foundation and Princeton Theological Seminary, which originally donated the land for the music school back in 1932. In addition, there have been arbitration issues by Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

The AAUP reacted to the news of Rider’s latest plan on Monday. “We are very concerned that given that the Lawrenceville campus lacks the specialized facilities that the Westminster programs require, such a move may entail the effective destruction of those programs,” a statement reads. “We therefore urge President Dell’Omo and the Board of Trustees to work with the AAUP and all other stakeholders to develop a plan that will ensure the long-term survival of Westminster Choir College as the world class music school that it presently is.”

The announcement from Rider this week said that the University and Kaiwen had mutually agreed not to extend the Purchase and Sale Agreement for Westminster, “and explore an alternative relationship between the two entities.” Dell’Omo was quoted, “Given the enormous complexity of the transaction, it became increasingly clear that partnering with an outside entity, even one as well-intentioned as Kaiwen, was not feasible on a viable timeline. Although we determined not to extend the PSA effective June 30, 2019, we have already begun conversations with Kaiwen’s leadership regarding meaningful areas for cooperation and collaboration.” Rider and Kaiwen will work together over the next three years on “academic and artistic initiatives,” the July 1 press release reads.

While consolidating the two campuses was originally proposed as a way to strengthen Rider’s finances two years ago, the Board of Trustees recognized “the strong traditions and history associated with the Princeton campus,” choosing instead “to search for a suitable partner that would preferably commit to operating Westminster in Princeton,” according to the statement.

Board Chairman Robert S. Schimek said, “Now that it is clear that transferring Westminster Choir College to an external partner is not possible, it is our continuing responsibility to enact a plan that serves the best interests of the entire University. It is not financially feasible to allow Westminster to continue on its present course as a separate, fully operational campus seven miles from Rider’s Lawrenceville campus.”

The Westminster Foundation, made up of alumni, former faculty, and others who value the music school, is working to find an alternative to Rider’s consolidation plan. “Calling off the deal with Kaiwen was round one,” said Constance Fee, the foundation’s president. “Our biggest goal now is to separate from the school, unless Rider goes back to some sort of commitment in being responsible and investing time and effort. We are moving ahead.”

Afran called the end of Rider’s agreement with Kaiwen “a slight improvement. But the attempt to move the school is equally destructive, and will be fully opposed,” he said. “There is no justification for the destruction of the school, which is what would happen.”