August 14, 2019

Opposition Grows to Relocation of Westminster

By Anne Levin

A letter sent to the Rider University community by University President Gregory Dell’Omo on August 7 urged members of the faculty, staff, and students to join “working groups” to assist in “the historic move of Westminster Choir College to Lawrenceville.”

But several members of the faculty have declined the invitation, saying the move from Westminster’s Princeton campus to Rider, projected to be completed in time for the fall 2020 semester, would mean the end of the prestigious music school, which has been located since 1932 on Walnut Lane. Westminster also encompasses the Westminster Conservatory of Music, a community music school.

Two days after the letter went out, Bruce Afran, attorney for the Westminster Foundation, filed an amended complaint with the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Chancery Division. The amended document adds 13 tenured faculty members to a complaint which seeks to prevent the move.

The facilities that accommodate Westminster’s specialized conservatory training — private studios and practice rooms, specially constructed organs, and acoustically designed facilities for choral instruction and performance — do not exist at Rider’s campus, and no plans to build or replicate them have been announced, opponents of the move contend. Westminster’s Talbot Library, which houses special collections and rare editions of musical literature and sound recordings, would be relocated to the basement of Rider’s Moore Library, according to the complaint.

Rider, which merged with Westminster in 1991, announced at the end of 2016 that it was seeking to sell the music school to make up for a projected deficit. A Chinese company was identified last year as the buyer, but the $40 million deal was halted two months ago. Two ongoing lawsuits contend that Rider has no legal right to sell the school. The
Westminster Foundation, made up of alumni, faculty, and supporters of the choir college, will soon seek an injunction to prevent the move, which Afran said “is just another version of the old plan. They want to sell.”

Dell’Omo’s letter to the Rider community says the move affords “the opportunity to establish a new vision for Rider University’s Westminster College of the Arts. This move from one campus to another is not just simply a logistical change in geography but rather a starting point for something new and very exciting.”

Rider launched the Westminster College of the Arts on the Lawrenceville campus in 2007. Dell’Omo’s letter says that the Westminster College of the Arts has resulted in “several important successes.” But “the simple truth is that the geographic and programmatic separation proved too strong to result in the desired connections. By moving Westminster Choir college programs to Lawrenceville, and a renewed focus on the branding and promotion of the Westminster College of the Arts as a whole, we believe that the long-desired collaboration and outcomes finally will be achieved.”

The amended complaint reads, “Rider’s association with Westminster also enabled Rider to make use of the ‘Westminster’ trademark in creating a new school known as the Westminster College of the Arts that accepts as majors each year approximately 300 students who are not a part of Westminster Choir College, but whose majors in music theatre and art are offered under the ‘Westminster’ trademark: Rider receives on average $27,000 in actual payments for each such student, meaning that each year Rider University receives tuition in the average amount of $8.1 million through its use of the Westminster trademark on Rider’s campus.”

In a response to Dell’Omo’s letter, Westminster Foundation president Constance Fee wrote, “The enthusiastic rhetoric of today’s message from the Office of the President concerning plans currently underway for an ‘exciting’ and ‘historic transition’ sends a very clear message: a move to the Lawrenceville campus would lead directly to the elimination of Westminster Choir College.”

Several students, alumni, and faculty members have been voicing opinions on social media. Westminster voice professor Elem Eley wrote on Facebook, specifically targeting Dell’Omo and the board of trustees, “There has never been such a case of institutional lunacy, mismanagement, and clownish bumbling. To quote our attorney, Bruce Afran, this maneuver is ‘farcical at best and incompetent at worst.’ ”

Joel Phillips, Westminster professor of composition and music theory, said he would not lend his name “to an endeavor that enables the administration to construct the mere appearance of collaboration in the complete absence of the bona fide item. Their unilateral decision to move Westminster to Lawrenceville by 2020 was announced as a fait accompli and involved no meaningful input.”

Joel Feldman, president of Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said he would not join “this committee or any other committee involved with the campus consolidation plan under the current circumstances,” adding, “I cannot participate in a process which begins with secrecy and dishonesty.”

Both Feldman and Rider professor Jeff Halpern said they are not completely opposed to consolidating the two campuses. But the current plan would be devastating to the choir college, they said, so they cannot support it. “The first priority must be to maintain Westminster’s world-class quality,” wrote Halpern. “What is the point of meeting an arbitrary deadline if the consequences damage or destroy the college?”

Afran said Tuesday that Rider’s plan “is the path of destruction for Westminster Choir College. They have absolutely no facilities to house the school, which needs specialized studios and performance spaces. No students will agree to attend” if the move takes place, he said. “So we will be going to court to block this plan, and have Westminster taken away from the control of Rider.”

Afran said the Westminster Foundation is in touch with an unnamed liberal arts college “at a high level” that is interested in merging with Westminster, and “two others have expressed interest.” There is still hope that Rider will abandon the plan. ‘We’re willing to work with them, as we have said many times, to make Westminster independent again,” Afran said.