July 12, 2023

Appellate Court Decision Renews Possibility of Westminster One Day Returning to Princeton

ENCOURAGING DECISION: Westminster Choir College’s campus could eventually come alive again thanks to a recent court ruling. (Photo by Charles Plohn)

By Anne Levin

The reversal last week of a 2020 ruling made in Mercer County Superior Court has given new hope to faculty, students, and alumni of Westminster Choir College intent on returning the music school to its former campus in Princeton.

A unanimous decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed Judge Robert Loughy’s dismissal of a suit seeking to block the closing of the campus by Rider University, which merged with Westminster in 1991, and moving it to Rider’s campus in Lawrence Township.

“This means we go back to trial court. Our case is still active in the court system,” said Constance Fee, president of the Westminster Foundation, which is among the more than 70 plaintiffs in the suit.

“Holding that the plaintiffs adequately pleaded ‘bad faith’ and ‘arbitrariness’ against Rider University for its attempts to ‘monetize’ Westminster for Rider’s financial benefit, the three-judge panel reversed Judge Loughy’s dismissal and ordered the case returned to the trial court,” reads a statement from the Foundation.

The ruling by the appellate court says that the plaintiffs had the right to enforce the merger agreement that resulted in Rider acquiring the music school. That agreement “provided that Rider must respect Westminster’s independent existence and its separate educational program, and could not close Westminster except in extraordinary circumstances,” said attorney Bruce Afran, who represents the plaintiffs. “The court held that the students, faculty, and alumni are the intended beneficiaries of the 1991 agreement, and have the right to go to court to prevent Rider from destroying or closing Westminster.”

An additional lawsuit was filed against Rider in 2018 by Princeton Theological Seminary, contending that Rider’s attempt to sell Westminster disregards conditions set by the Seminary when it donated the land for Westminster in the 1930s. The donation stipulated that ownership of the land would shift to the Seminary if Westminster ever ceased to operate as a choir college. That case is currently on hold.

It was in 2018 that Rider announced it was putting the 22-acre choir college campus up for sale to help stem Rider’s financial woes, sparking intense opposition from students, faculty, and alumni. A deal to sell the school and its campus, facilities, and programs to a Chinese company fell through, leading Rider to move Westminster to Lawrence Township in September 2020. Fallout from the relocation has led to the shrinking of enrollment and damage to the reputation of the choir college, which is over a century old and known as a renowned training ground for music educators and performers, and its choirs which have sung with major orchestras, nationally and internationally.

The Westminster Foundation has been active since that time in efforts to revitalize the choir college and return it to its Walnut Lane campus, where specialized facilities include the $13 million Cullen Center, music studios, and pipe organs. The Foundation and other plaintiffs have been seeking an injunction ordering Rider to either operate Westminster on the Princeton campus or make the college independent again.

Last year, the real estate firm ML7 made an offer to Rider to purchase the campus and return Westminster to that location. That offer still exists.

“We have an offer from a prominent real estate developer who wants to restore the college,” Afran said Monday. “We’re waiting for Rider and the Seminary to come to us and say they are willing to talk.”

Last week’s ruling “absolutely changes everything,” Afran said. “We now go back to where we were when our case was dismissed, and we have the right to enforce the 1991 merger agreement. The court has recognized our right to make that statement.”

Both Afran and Fee acknowledged that returning Westminster to full strength would be a challenge, but one they feel can be met. “Most of the faculty is still there, and more will come back,” said Afran. “Remember, it’s a 400-student school. It can be rebuilt. It’s tragic that Rider’s leadership embarked on this course of action. Westminster could have been a cash cow for Rider, helping them in time of trouble.”

Fee said, “Nothing has changed in our mission since the day this foundation was formed. We’re still here, and are willing to have discussions and negotiate a solution for Westminster to return to its historic campus.”

At press time, Rider University did not respond to a request for comment.