September 18, 2019

Students Join Effort to Prevent Relocation of Westminster Choir College

By Anne Levin

A group of Westminster Choir College students has joined the list of plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at preventing Rider University from relocating Westminster Choir College from its Princeton home to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus. But while litigation to stop the move gathers strength, enrollment at the choir college is at a dangerously low level.

“Enrollment has dropped 60 percent in the last two freshman classes,” attorney Bruce Afran told a standing-room-only crowd gathered for a public forum on Westminster’s future last Tuesday evening, September 10, at Nassau Presbyterian Church. “I am fearful that the students who visit the Lawrenceville campus, which is the only campus where they are being given tours, will not attend, because they will see [Rider] does not have the facilities they need for their craft. We may end up with zero students, and that is a horrible waste.”

Some members of the audience, which included students as well as faculty and members of the community, expressed concern that the college could be decimated by the time litigation is complete. But Afran vowed to continue the suits, adding that efforts are still being made to sit down with Rider and come up with a financial solution.

The Westminster Foundation, a nonprofit group of alumni, faculty, and supporters of the choir college, organized the meeting to provide the public with their side of the what they see as Westminster’s struggle for survival. Rider, which merged with Westminster in 1991, announced in 2016 that it intended to sell the music school’s campus to help stem a projected deficit. After a failed attempt to sell Westminster to a Chinese company, the University changed its focus to moving the music conservatory to Lawrenceville.

A lack of facilities to accommodate Westminster’s specialized curriculum is among the issues of concern. Acoustics, recital halls, places to practice, and moving Westminster’s library full of valuable scores, books, and other materials are also in question.

“Westminster has 165 pianos, many of which are baby grands and grands,” said Afran. “Two pianos often have to go in one room. Rider will need about
150 rooms to put them in. At this point, Rider has no plan. No new construction has been proposed, no plans presented.”

In a letter to the Rider/Westminster community this week, DonnaJean Fredeen, Rider provost and vice president for academic affairs, wrote that Rider “has committed to extensive renovations and additions to our existing facilities, all of which will take place between now and fall 2021. As this year progresses, I commit to sharing detailed information on all of those construction projects with you.”

Efforts by the University to make the move into a positive development have provoked some angry comments on social media. A recent post by voice professor Elem Eley referenced Fredeen’s letter, specifically a section that says, “Movement of the educational and artistic programs of Westminster Choir College to Lawrenceville will make it possible for all students to participate in programs, ensembles, and productions. Among other possible new developments, I look forward to the participation of those Westminster students who also play instruments in our various School of Fine and Performing Arts instrumental groups; to collaboration among various a cappella student groups; and to relationships between our new programs in game design, dance science, and the many communications and music majors.”

Thomas Scheck wrote, “They simply do not understand anything about Westminster Choir College and what made it the world-class institution it has been.” June Tipton wrote, “To be world class in anything is to have risen above average. Our society would never mix NFL team members with those who never made the cut, and for good reason! Duh!”

Constance Fee, president of the Westminster Foundation and the moderator at last week’s meeting, questioned the pace at which Rider is acting. “This reckless speed with which they are moving forward raises questions of why. Why can’t you get the plan first and the funding first, and leave us where we are?”

Despite the dwindling enrollment, the lawsuits will continue. “We are getting money pouring in from choir conductors and public school music teachers every day, more and more, to go toward the legal proceedings, because we’re not backing down,” she said. “There is inevitable damage that Rider has already caused, but this is too valuable an institution to stop now.”

Fee confirmed that the Foundation is still in discussion with another academic institution about taking Westminster on. At the meeting, Afran also mentioned the idea of making Westminster part of a consortium of several college conservatories. “There is interest there,” said Fee. “But it is all in the hypothetical stage until the lawsuits are determined.”