December 22, 2021

Westminster Students Say Rider’s Response to Petition Ignores Their Concerns

By Anne Levin

Early this month, a petition signed by 130 students and alumni of Westminster Choir College of Rider University was delivered to Rider administration. Complaining of inadequate facilities, decreasing enrollment, and unfulfilled promises since Westminster was moved from its longtime Princeton location to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus last year, the petition demanded an immediate response.

Rider responded with a lengthy email on December 16, addressing the concerns listed in the petition. “Starting at a high level, please know we have invested considerable time and millions of dollars in Westminster Choir College campus transition and the facilities to support it, all in a very challenging fiscal and COVID-impacted environment,” reads the letter, which is signed by Rider President Gregory G. Dell’Omo, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost DonnaJean Fredeen, and Westminster College of the Arts Dean Marshall Onofrio. “We know transitions are hard and often require sustained work to get right. We are continuing our work as explained below.”

While surprised at the length of the administration’s response, one of the students who wrote the petition was less than impressed with its content. “To me, it’s a prime example of gaslighting,” said Marion Jacob, who is pursuing a graduate degree in choral conducting. “It has taken all of our concerns and said they were not valid, exaggerated, or just don’t deserve attention. From every part of this petition, every one of our concerns was ignored. They mention a few things they have changed, but only since they got the petition.”

Westminster’s 22-acre choral campus has been located on Walnut Lane in Princeton since the 1930s. The college 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.

Among the biggest concerns expressed by the students is the size of Rider’s Gill Chapel, which the petition says isn’t large enough to accommodate Westminster’s famed Symphonic Choir. It also cites the chapel’s acoustics as

inadequate. The administration’s response says the chapel “can accommodate 230 singers in rehearsal, similar to the capacity of the Playhouse and Hillman Hall on the Princeton campus. However, COVID protocols required a change to all seating arrangements. When we are able to safely return to unrestricted seating, Gill Chapel will easily accommodate the Symphonic Choir, which enrolls approximately 80 students at this time.”

As for acoustics, Rider administration responded that they have installed a single “cloud panel,” and “will determine if additional treatment is needed.”

Also weighing in is Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which issued a press release last week supporting the petition. “The students have legitimate complaints, complaints that could all be addressed by simply reopening the Princeton campus,” the release reads, adding that Rider’s inability to sell the Westminster campus in Princeton has resulted in enrollment “now a quarter of its previous size. This reduced enrollment has stripped over $13 million dollars from Rider University’s annual revenues and the university has accumulated over $20 million in additional debt building new facilities in Lawrenceville while the Princeton campus sits empty.”

Joel Phillips, professor of music of composition and music theory at Rider and assistant grievance officer of the AAUP chapter, said this week that the AAUP supports the mission of the institution, “which is to educate the students. And our most renowned program was Westminster. The administration has done everything within its power to destroy it in order to monetize the assets. So, in moving it to Lawrenceville, they claim they’re improving efficiency. But what that means is eliminating our campus and monetizing it. That’s what they still hope to do. The campus in Lawrenceville is perfectly suitable for other programs, but it’s entirely unsuitable for a program like Westminster.”

Barbara Frantz, professor of political science at Rider and the president of the AAUP chapter, said that support for the students is not limited to members of the AAUP. “We did an online poll, and we have about 50 faculty members who have indicated their support, so its not just AAUP,” she said. “We agree with the students. It enriches our campus to have them. But it is clear that the facilities here are not up to the standards they require. The space is not big enough. And if the students are not happy, they will not come back. It’s a slow killing of the program.”

In their response to the petition, Rider administration said that the Princeton campus is still available for certain uses. But the move of Westminster to the Rider campus “has provided many opportunities for improved experiences for students, faculty, and staff,” the response reads. “Issues with mold, flooding, and outdated or non-existent technology on the Princeton campus were a daily challenge. We believe the technology and space on the Lawrenceville campus exceeds the conditions that existed in many of the Princeton campus facilities.”

Graduate student Debbie-Ann Francis, co-author of the petition, said “No good can come from the loss of any academic institution, especially when mismanagement can be stopped and corrected. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction that the Rider senior administration is willing to follow. Their failures as an administration must be addressed and corrected as soon as possible, or Westminster and Rider will be lost. This cannot happen.”