December 1, 2021

Westminster Students Send Petition to Rider With Multiple Concerns

By Anne Levin

A petition signed by 130 students and alumni of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, expressing concerns about inadequate facilities, decreasing enrollment, unfulfilled promises, and more, was delivered to Rider administration on Tuesday afternoon.

“We, the students of Westminster Choir College (WCC), undersigned, are concerned about our education, our institution, the impact inadequate facilities have on our education, the value that our degrees will hold upon graduation, and the quality of support that we receive from the administration,” reads the opening paragraph.

The 22-acre choral college campus, located on Walnut Lane since the 1930s, became part of Rider in 1992. Four years ago, Rider announced it would sell Westminster and its Princeton campus, saying the institution had been losing money. But the controversial plan was dropped in 2017 after attempts to sell fell through, and last year Rider absorbed Westminster into its Lawrenceville campus.

“The move was made with promises to build a premier fine arts building, with more practice rooms, teaching studios, performance facilities, dance studios, offices for music faculty, and accommodations for everyone taking courses in the Westminster College of the Arts (WCA) and Westminster Choir College,” the petition reads. “As we near the end of the fall 2021 semester, we have yet to see what was promised.”

The petition was spearheaded by Marion Jacob, pursuing a graduate degree in master choral conducting; and Debbie-Ann Francis, a graduate student in piano pedagogy. Jacob said she and other students had attempted to express their concerns in the past, with little or no response from Rider administration.

“After feeling like we hadn’t been heard, we decided that students really needed a voice,” Jacob said Tuesday. “We sat down and cranked out this petition, and we have been trying to get it out.”

Prominent among the students’ concerns is the state of the facilities they use. Gill Chapel, their   primary rehearsal and performance space, is “acoustically deficient,” the petition reads. “Students, professors, visiting professors have all commented on how difficult it is to hear in the room. The numerous ensembles that

rehearse in the space are unable to hear well and adjust, resulting in pitchy and unpolished rehearsals and performances.”

The petition also says Gill Chapel is not large enough to accommodate Westminster’s Symphonic Choir, one of nine choirs based at the school. The Symphonic Choir records and performs with major orchestras and internationally famous conductors.

Water damage and a ceiling leak are mentioned, as are pianos for students that “do not reflect a conservatory-level department.” The performance Yamaha piano in Gill Chapel “is clearly not maintained. For a piano used in performance, that is unacceptable,” it reads. Rider’s Yvonne Theater is unsuitable for opera performances, the petition complains. “The acoustics require that students over-sing or force themselves, potentially leading to injury, in order to be heard. Artists in the field rely on acoustics, not electronic amplification.”

Rider has not met its obligations to “preserve, promote, and enhance the existing missions of WCC’s purposes, programs and traditions and ensure its separate identity,” the petition says, citing a lack of photos or memorabilia in Gill Chapel or the Fine Arts building. “Westminster Choir College is the only choir college in the world,” it reads. “It is a full-fledged institution with over 90 years of high-level music making, performances, and prominent alumni, and yet, it is not easy to find on the Rider University website. It is treated as a small music department or an afterthought.”

Jacob said Westminster students are sometimes able to use the facilities on the Princeton campus, “but it’s really as a last resort. And some students are allowed to do recitals there, but it’s complicated.”

The petition requests a response from Rider administration by December 15. “It is imperative that the administration address our concerns listed above, and provide adequate facilities or make Westminster’s Princeton campus available for full academic use immediately for Westminster Choir College and its students, faculty, and staff,” it says.

Kristine Brown, Rider’s associate vice president for marketing and communications, issued a statement on the petition.

“We welcome all feedback from students on their experience at Rider. Given the opportunity to investigate and respond to such concerns, we are extremely confident in our ability to resolve them to the satisfaction of students, faculty, and staff,” it reads. “Ensuring our facilities meet or hopefully exceed expectations is a constant focus. That’s why we worked closely with industry experts to create or adapt practice rooms, performance spaces, classrooms, and more on the Lawrenceville campus, including the same acoustic consultants who worked on Hillman Performance Hall on the Princeton campus. 

“This fall, audiences have enthusiastically greeted new recordings by Westminster choirs and their long-awaited return to live performance. We are fully dedicated to maintaining the high level of artistry and musical expression that makes such events — and Westminster’s unique legacy — possible.”