Rider U. to move Westminster Choir College out of Princeton

After a sale to a Chinese company fell through, Rider University wants to move Westminster College off its campus of 87 years. A legal challenge mounts.

Westminster Choir College’s Williamson Hall in Princeton, NJ. (Provided)

Westminster Choir College’s Williamson Hall in Princeton, NJ. (Provided)

The proposed sale of Westminster Choir College is off. Now a legal challenge is mounting to block an intent to move the elite music school out of Princeton, New Jersey.

Westminster has been in Princeton for 87 years. The school has been under the control of Rider University since 1992, but the elite music school has become a financial burden to Rider in recent years.

Last summer, Rider agreed to sell the college to Kaiwen Education, a private company partially owned by the Chinese government, pending legal approvals.

Lawsuits against the sale were filed by Westminster Foundation, an organization of Westminster alumni and donors, and the Princeton Theological Seminary, which originally donated the land for the Westminster campus in 1932.

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The office of the New Jersey attorney general wrote a letter to Judge Paul Inness, who is overseeing the sale, voicing concern about difficulties getting required documents from Kaiwen.

Last week, at the 11th hour before finalizing the sale, Kaiwen and Rider mutually agreed to terminate the agreement, for undisclosed reasons. In a statement, the university said it plans to fold Westminster’s music program into Rider’s nearby campus, and use the 23-acre campus in Princeton for other purposes.

“The plan has the potential to realize the goal of a strong and thriving Westminster College of the Arts,” said Marshall Onofrio, Dean of Westminster College of the Arts. “It is my hope that students, faculty, staff, and alumni will unite around this opportunity and participate in creating a new chapter in Westminster Choir College’s illustrious history.”

Faculty and alumni wasted no time in denouncing the proposed move.

“We are very concerned that given that the Lawrenceville campus lacks the specialized facilities that the Westminster programs require, such a move may entail the effective destruction of those programs,” wrote the Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors in a statement.

“The lawsuit is simply going to expand,” said attorney Bruce Afran, who represents the Westminster Foundation and had filed a suit last year opposing the sale.

While opposition to the sale is now moot, focus is shifting to the second part of the lawsuit claiming Rider cannot move Westminster away from its campus.

“Rider is the charitable steward of Westminster College,” Afran said. “It doesn’t have the right to dismember it, sell it, monetize it to build an engineering school or an athletic center or dorms. It can only use Westminster and its property for Westminster’s purposes.”

Afran said he was recently retained by a group of Westminster faculty, in addition to the alumni foundation. If need be, he will wrestle Westminster from Rider’s control and reestablish it as an independent college, he said.

From Rider University’s perspective, incorporating Westminster into its Lawrenceville campus is the only way to stabilize the college’s finances.

“Rider has never wavered from its commitment to supporting and sustaining Westminster Choir College,” said Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo. “The new plan to integrate the two campuses represents another investment in the future of the College that we believe will also accelerate reinvestment in Rider.”

In the short term, Westminster will operate through the next academic year, 2019-2020. No staff layoffs are expected. In a statement, Dell’Omo said he expects the transition to the Lawrenceville campus to happen in time for the fall 2020 semester.

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