The fate of Westminster Choir College is still up in the air, and still unknown to the public, as Rider University negotiates to sell the school to a buyer that it has declined to name. Adding to the mystery, a Chinese company that was rumored to be the buyer, Guanghua Education Group, has said it dropped out of the bidding process five months ago.
The choir college has been a part of Rider since 1992, when the two colleges merged. At the time Westminster was in danger of shutting down due to money problems. Combining with the larger school allowed Westminster to get its finances under control and stay open.
Now Rider president Dell’Omo says Rider itself been grappling with a budget deficit and declining enrollment. Last year Rider proposed the cost-cutting measure of moving Westminster from its 23-acre campus to the main Rider campus in Lawrenceville, but those plans were scratched after an outcry by Westminster students and faculty who did not want to give up their historic campus, where it has been located since 1932.
In March Rider announced it was no longer considering consolidating campuses and was instead looking for someone to buy Westminster outright. In August, Rider announced it was negotiating with a buyer who intended to operate the school as a nonprofit institution. Rider has not identified the buyer.
The sale faces opposition from faculty, students, and alumni. Some of them have organized into a group called the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton. In April the faculty gave Dell’Omo a unanimous and symbolic “no confidence” vote. Other opponents of the sale have taken legal action. In June, a group of several Westminster alumni sued the university in federal court. The group’s lawyer, Bruce Afran, argues that selling Westminster to anyone other than a nonprofit college would be in violation of the merger agreement between Rider and Westminster.
Meanwhile, the sale is moving forward. Rider has described the buyer only as an international entity, leaving the public to guess at its identity.
Speculation on the potential buyer of the school has centered on Guanghua Education Group, a Shanghai-based company that runs a chain of K-12 schools in China as well as a program that places Chinese students in American schools. Afran’s lawsuit filed in May includes a list of potential buyers, most of which are real estate developers. Of the listed organizations, only Guanghua was involved in education in any way.
However, Claire Xu, head of overseas strategy investment and cooperation for Guanghua Education Group, wrote in an e-mail that GEG dropped its bid for Westminster in June. “We don’t think that GEG and WCC have synergies and we quit the bid,” she wrote.
According to press reports, Dell’Omo has said in public meetings that the buyer is a for-profit company that operates K to 12 schools in its home country and was looking to get into higher education, and that it was not the highest bidder. He also reportedly said the company would form a nonprofit group to run Westminster.
Afran said that in court, Rider has gone back and forth between describing the buyer as a for-profit and a nonprofit, and that a for-profit would pose a problem.
“A for profit cannot run a nonprofit college,” Afran said. “If it is a true nonprofit, that might allow us to settle the suit. If it’s a commercial company, that is a significant issue that may be an obstacle that’s impossible to overcome.”
Accredited nonprofit colleges must be run by a board of directors, and Afran said it is unclear how that arrangement would work if it were acquired by a private company. A further complication is that the buyer is from another country, and the laws in China, for example, about what a nonprofit is, are different from those in the U.S.
If the mechanics of selling a college are murky, it’s because it is unprecedented. It has simply never been done before. College campuses have been sold, and colleges have merged with other institutions, but selling an entire institution outright is unheard of.
“This is such virgin territory,” Dell’Omo told Inside Higher Education. “These kinds of transactions don’t take place, although it’s going to probably become more common in the future than it currently is.” He has said the deal was likely to be finalized by January.
In late October, The entire teaching staff of Westminster Choir College received notices that they might be laid off as of August 31, 2018. Rider associate vice president for human resources Robert A. Stoto wrote a letter to the affected faculty member saying that the notice does not mean that anyone is being fired, and that layoffs will only occur if the deal does not go through. “In the event a transaction is not consummated, it may be necessary to transition to closure and provide an opportunity for teach-out of current WCC students,” he wrote.
Dell’Omo said the buyer intended to keep the school open as an accredited institution, and that the current staff would be able to keep their jobs.
“We are pleased to have identified a partner who intends to operate WCC as a non-profit music school in Princeton, and it is our understanding, at this time, that the partner would want the current WCC faculty and staff to continue employment after the transition from Rider,” Stoto wrote.
The union representing the affected faculty, the Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors, threatened to file a grievance in response to the layoff notice, arguing that Rider’s labor contract only permitted layoffs in cases of “financial exigency exigency or the demonstrated financial need to eliminate or curtail programs or courses of instruction to protect the well-being of the university,” and that Rider’s financial situation did not warrant the layoffs.
The union said it would organize “direct action” in response to the notice.
In the meantime, business as usual is continuing at Westminster. The school is hosting “Experience Westminster” day trips for prospective students on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. throughout the academic year. For more information, call 800-962-4647 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.