October 30, 2019

71 Westminster Students Are Listed as Plaintiffs in Suit Against Rider

By Anne Levin

A new complaint designed to keep Rider University from moving Westminster Choir College from its longtime Princeton campus to the University’s Lawrenceville location has 71 plaintiffs, all of whom are students at the choir college.

Attorney Bruce Afran filed the complaint in the Chancery Division of Mercer County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon, October 29. Additional lawsuits against Rider, with other plaintiffs, have been filed at earlier dates.

Rider, which merged with Westminster in 1992, has been trying to unload the music school since 2016. After a proposed $40 million sale to a Chinese company fell through in July, the University announced it would close the Princeton campus and relocate its student body to the Lawrenceville campus by September 2020.

Rider has released preliminary drawings showing an addition to its Fine Arts building and renovations to its chapel and library. “Our campus transition team and affiliated working groups are moving full steam ahead on planning a successful integration of Rider’s two campuses,” wrote DonnaJean Fredeen, Rider’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, in an update on the University’s website early this month.

But the move is opposed by many Westminster students, faculty, alumni, and supporters, who say that its specially constructed facilities for choral and other musical training do not exist at Rider and would be impossible to recreate. There are some 150 practice rooms at Westminster. Rider has said it plans to build 16. Westminster has performance halls specially constructed for vocal training and performance, while Rider does not.

“By moving the school, Rider abandons all of the specialized facilities that have been built up over 100 years for elite music students,” Afran said. “It will end the conservatory environment. It will cause further loss of students. And that means performance contracts with the New York Philharmonic and The Philadelphia Orchestra will be endangered.”

Afran said two students were especially active in organizing their peers. “They had been patiently listening to Rider’s administration saying it would all be fine, and they finally recognized that this was going to damage their education,” he said. “They felt there were no real answers to their questions, namely, how are you going to recreate these facilities?”

Students are planning to hold a vigil on Saturday, November 2, around 9 p.m. on Westminster’s quadrangle, immediately following a performance by the Chapel Choir. The vigil, which is taking place during Parents’ Weekend, is being advertised as “a peaceful demonstration of unity and opposition to the actions of Rider University.”

Mayor Liz Lempert said this week that the town of Princeton values Westminster and its 22-acre campus in the middle of town. “Westminster is an important institution for the town, and the property is important, too,” she said. “It gives a sense of place for that part of town. We’re very interested as a town about the future of the school, and anything that would happen to that property. Rider is a private institution, though, and we don’t have control over its decisions.”

Westminster Conservatory of Music, the community music school affiliated with the choir college, “is such an important institution for the town,” Lempert added. “It has been so great to have it next to the middle school and high school.”

The uncertainties in Westminster’s future over the past few years have resulted in a serious decline in enrollment, which is currently down 60 percent. “You can rebuild after a bad year,” said Afran when asked how this will affect the school’s future. “We don’t want that to happen. But we’re confident the court will rule in our favor.”

Constance Fee, who heads the Westminster Foundation dedicated to preserving the Princeton campus, said the organization is still hopeful that the decision to move the school will be reversed.

“If Rider administration would put the kind of energy and focus and financial investment into keeping Westminster where it is, it would certainly be their biggest moneymaker,” she said. “Instead, they are using it for destructive purposes that would certainly lead to the elimination of the choir college. We remain open to discussion of other options, as we have since December, 2016, when all of this began.”