February 19, 2020

Judge Considers Arguments on Westminster Choir College Lawsuits

By Anne Levin

On Friday, February 14, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy heard arguments from attorneys representing Rider University on one side, and the Westminster Foundation and 70 Westminster Choir College students on the other, regarding lawsuits by the two groups that the University wants dismissed. The judge is expected to issue a decision within the next two to three weeks.

The suits are a sticking point in Rider’s attempts to finalize the move of Westminster from its longtime Princeton location to the University’s Lawrence campus. Westminster has been a part of Rider since the two institutions merged in 1992, but Westminster has remained on its 22-acre campus on Walnut Lane.

Citing financial difficulties, Rider attempted to sell the Westminster campus to a Chinese company but the deal fell through, leading to a decision to consolidate the two schools on the Rider campus. Those opposed to the move say Rider does not have the facilities or capabilities to accommodate the esteemed music school, and the move would lead to its demise. Rider maintains that the consolidation would keep Westminster in business.

It was standing room only in the small courtroom in Trenton where the attorneys presented their arguments. “This is not a case about a school being closed,” said Angelo A. Stio of Pepper Hamilton, the firm representing Rider. “This is a case about a school being saved.”

The lawsuits claim that language in the original donation of land for Westminster in the 1930s, and in the merger agreement from 1992, prohibit the proposed relocation because of stipulations that the campus be used for training in liturgical music, with an emphasis on the Presbyterian tradition. Rider’s attorneys said that is not the case.

Bruce Afran, who represents the students and the Westminster Foundation, said the move would damage Westminster. “Rider makes no bones about it. They’re going to change and rebrand Westminster. It would be a mere department of music on a liberal arts campus,” he said, stressing Westminster’s longstanding reputation as a top music school with choirs that perform with major orchestras.

Meanwhile, Rider has been updating members of the campus community about plans for renovations to accommodate Westminster. DonnaJean Fredeen, provost and vice president for academic affairs, wrote a few weeks ago that plans to transition materials of Westminster’s Talbott Library to Rider’s Moore Library have been approved by Rider’s Facilities Monitoring Committee. “Our goal was to preserve student and faculty access to Talbott’s important scholarly resources while improving Moore Library in ways that will benefit all Rider students,” she wrote.

Some faculty, alumni, and students have taken issue with that and other statements in Fredeen’s email updates, saying no approvals have been made to allow renovations to the school’s Fine Arts building. They also say that the intent of the improvements is to enhance the Lawrence campus experience. “The idea that these plans were put into place to specifically accommodate the needs of WCC students is disingenuous,” wrote Shaun Holland on the Facebook page Keep Westminster Choir College in Princeton. “Some of these plans were already developed before the fight to save WCC began.”

The Westminster Foundation continues to raise funds and advocate for keeping Westminster in place. “Based on the judge’s intense focus on the arguments that were presented to him, and the questions he posed to attorneys for both parties, we feel confident a fair decision will be rendered,” the nonprofit said in a statement.