March 4, 2020

Judge Grants Rider’s Motions to Dismiss Westminster Lawsuits

By Anne Levin

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy has granted Rider University’s motions to dismiss two lawsuits challenging the University’s legal ability to move Westminster Choir College, with which Rider merged in 1992, from its longtime Princeton location to Rider’s campus in Lawrence Township.

The March 2 ruling clears the way for Rider to proceed with its plan to consolidate the two schools onto one campus. But plaintiffs in the two lawsuits plan to challenge the ruling. “This is only the opening salvo in this fight,” attorney Bruce Afran, who represents the plaintiffs, said Tuesday. “We will immediately appeal the decision, most likely by Friday morning.”

The nonprofit Westminster Foundation, a group of alumni, faculty, and supporters, is the plaintiff in one of the suits. The other is a group of 71 Westminster undergraduate and graduate students. Judge Lougy heard both sides’ arguments on February 14. The plaintiffs claim that Rider will not be able to provide the kind of specialized facilities, such as enough acoustically engineered practice rooms and faculty studios, on the campus.

The judge’s ruling said that while the students, faculty, and alumni have standing to go to court, there is no legal claim that can be filed because Rider and Westminster are nonprofit corporations and not charities. “We think they obviously are charities, subject to New Jersey’s  charities laws,” said Afran. “Because like any nonprofit school, they take charitable, tax-exempt donations and are 501-C registered charities.”

Since the plan to consolidate was unveiled last July, Rider officials have been issuing reports to the campus community about renovations to the campus to accommodate Westminster’s move. Included are a 23,000-square-foot addition to the Fine Arts Center, and improvements to the library and chapel.

“Much work already is underway to successfully transition Westminster’s programs to Lawrenceville, and much more work remains,” Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo said in a press release announcing the legal decision. “The transition will be achieved most successfully if we work together as a community, offering one another strength and support as we move forward… We recognize that while change can be unsettling, it is sometimes necessary, and it can lead to new possibilities.”

Rider attempted to sell the Westminster and its 22-acre campus two years ago, claiming financial difficulties. After a $40 million deal to sell Westminster to Beijing Kaiwen Educational Technology Ltd. fell through last summer, Rider announced its intention to combine the two campuses. The plan is for the two schools to be integrated by September 2020.

Since the choir college and its affiliated Westminster Conservatory were first put up for sale, the Westminster Foundation has been pursuing efforts to keep the school at its Princeton home. In the meantime, enrollment at Westminster has declined.

But Rider’s announcement of the ruling says the relocation “represents Rider’s larger vision to elevate and enhance all of the University’s arts and music programs in ways that will create new opportunities and serve the needs of 21st-century students.”

“We believe strongly in that vision, and we believe strongly in Westminster Choir College and its unique cultural contribution to the world,” Dell’Omo said. “We are working hard to continue those contributions to ensure a strong and sustainable future for Westminster Choir College.”