Rider University says a potential buyer for the Westminster Choir College would keep the 97-year-old choral school on its Princeton campus. Rider, which merged with the choir college in 1992, said in a press release August 17 that it is negotiating with an “international partner” that intends to keep Westminster intact on its 23-acre Walnut Lane location.
“We now begin negotiations with the selected partner, which will include a detailed investigation of the proposed transaction,” wrote Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo in a mass e-mail. “It is critical that negotiations remain confidential between Rider and the selected potential partner.”
The announcement said the finalist was “a potential international partner that has proposed to acquire Westminster Choir College and maintain the campus in Princeton. From the beginning, our goal has been to identify a partner that is well positioned to make the necessary investments in and build upon Westminster’s world-class curriculum and rich legacy.”
Dell’Omo wrote that Rider was committed to maintaining existing programs, faculty, and administration.
Rider is looking to sell the school in order to right its financial ship amid declining enrollment and a persistent budget deficit over several years, and said it was seeking buyers who fell into one of three categories: buyers who just wanted the land the school was on, buyers who wanted to operate the school at a different location, and buyers who wanted to operate the school at its current location.
A group called the “Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College” has filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the sale, saying that any sale except the third category would be a breach of the agreement that merged Westminster with Rider.
Constance Fee, president of the Alumni Council of Westminster Choir College and member of the coalition, said the term “maintain the campus in Princeton” in the Rider announcement was a good sign. “However, there are so many questions that aren’t answered yet,” she said. “We don’t know what ‘International’ means. Does it mean in Europe, or does it mean Asia? There are just too many questions remaining to have a strong response.”
Fee said it’s possible the lawsuit could be resolved, but that “it’s extremely important to the coalition that there be assurance in whatever documents and contracts are put together that there is absolute assurance that the school will be maintained as-is in the long term.”
The coalition’s case is set for a Friday, September 1, court hearing. In the lawsuit, the coalition says that selling the campus to a commercial developer would destroy a historic campus:
“Commercial sale and development of the Westminster campus will destroy the integrated and unique academic structures and physical plant designed for the specific purposes of the music and fine arts education to be continued under the 1991 merger agreement, along with the performance places, piano and organ structures, the church and its religious performance venue, the playhouse and the Cullen center, a performance venue designed for Westminster’s specific academic mission and purposes, and will cause a completion [sic] destruction of the history associated with the Westminster Princeton campus.”
The suit argues that Rider should be made to sell to a partner that will continue to operate the school where it is. “Rider should be judicially directed to seek out and identify an academic institution or other entity that will continue to operate, maintain and fund Westminster Choir College as … a non-profit institution of higher education in the field of sacred and choral music instruction, voice, conducting, music teaching and related fields.”
The coalition’s lawyer, Bruce Afran, told reporters the deal was potentially a way out of the conflict. “If they have found a way to satisfy their own needs and keep Westminster as a college of music education, we may all be able to move forward,” he told classical music station WWFM, adding that any for-profit organization that bought the school would have to ensure that Westminster is operated by an independent board so it could maintain its accreditation.
Rider chose its finalist out of a pool of about 280 potential partners that it had found in a search begun in March (U.S. 1, August 16).
The Westminster Choir was founded in 1920 in Dayton, Ohio, with the school following in 1926 and college in 1929. In 1932, it moved to its current home, which also hosts the Westminster Conservatory and the Westminster Community Orchestra.