November 27, 2019

Attorney General’s Report Considers the Future Of Westminster Site

By Anne Levin

On November 19, the Office of the Attorney General issued an opinion that Rider University may have the legal right to move Westminster Choir College, with which it merged in 1991, from Princeton to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus. Two days later, Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo sent an email to the Rider/Westminster community.

“We are pleased that the attorney general agrees with our legal position as to the legality of the move, and we continue to move forward with our efforts to complete the relocation by the fall semester of 2020,” he wrote.

Not so fast, say members of the Westminster Foundation, the American Association of University Professors, the Westminster Alumni Council, and the attorney representing plaintiffs in suits against Rider aimed at stopping the move. While the report does not prohibit Rider’s ability to relocate the music school, it lays out the potential consequences should Rider not continue to use the 22-acre site for the purpose dictated by the original land trust from the 1930s — serving the Presbyterian church through music.

Donated by Sophia Strong Taylor, the property would be transferred to Princeton Theological Seminary should the Choir College cease to exist, according to the trust. Dell’Omo has said that proceeds from a sale of the campus would help pay for Rider’s plan to consolidate the two campuses.

Attorney Bruce Afran, who represents the plaintiffs in the suits against Rider, said the attorney general never gave any approval or said that Rider has the right to move the school. “In fact, they said the opposite, that it is a subject of contract law under Rider’s 1991 merger agreement with Westminster, and that it needs to be resolved,” he said. “This means the attorney general is recognizing that the plaintiffs have a right to challenge the move.”

The attorney general’s report said the office will continue to monitor the impact of the proposed move. “In fact, they said they take no position and note that it is a matter to be resolved under the contract,” Afran said. “It doesn’t help Rider in any way. In fact, it makes it hard, because it says that the 1935 trust still governs the land and the buildings, and that if
the liturgical music mission stops at the Westminster campus, the property will have to go back to the Seminary.”

A November 11 message to the Rider community from Provost DonnaJean Fredeen said renovation plans to add on to Rider’s Gill Chapel, to accommodate Westminster students, are ready for submission to the Lawrence Township Planning Office for approval. “The project will create a full performing and rehearsal space in the main chapel, as well as 13 new large and small practice rooms, an expanded lobby, and worship spaces,” she wrote, adding that professional architects, engineers, and consultants are in on the project.

Some Westminster faculty, alumni, and students say those and other proposed changes are not sufficient, and the move will mean the end of the music school. Westminster Foundation President Constance Fee, Foundation Vice President P. Randolph Hill, and Westminster student Jordan Klotz will appear on Princeton Community TV 30’s Back Story with Joan Goldstein to discuss the situation on Wednesday, November 27 at 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, December 1 at 5:30 p.m.; Wednesday, December 4 at 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday, December 8 at 5:30 p.m.

“As we continue to navigate these challenging and complex issues, it is important to remind ourselves of the fact that the primary obstacle to a move of the campus is the lawsuits, which remain in place, and our most valuable asset is our unwavering resolve to stay the course and to not be swayed by psychological tactics and PR,” Fee wrote in a recent post on the Westminster Foundation’s Facebook page. “Bear in mind that the goal has always been to break our spirit and convince us that this threatened elimination of Westminster Choir College by moving it to inadequate facilities in Lawrenceville is inevitable. Speaking on behalf of the Westminster Foundation and the plaintiffs in both the McMorris and student complaints, I can assure you that it is not.”