Westminster Choir College, of Princeton, New Jersey, is being sold by Rider University, which acquired the college in 1992.
The move comes after a long debate between the faculty, students and alumni of Westminster who resisted the idea of moving Westminster away from its longtime home in Princeton to the Rider campus in Lawrenceville, NJ. Rider, which is having it’s own financial troubles, decided to sell rather than move the Choir college which would require a new building able to house, practice and performance space as well as the several pipe organs and many pianos that Westminster owns.
Westminster is a renowned music school located in Princeton, about 15 miles north of Rider’s main campus in Lawrence, N.J. When Rider acquired Westminster in 1992, it was already well established in the music word.
“Westminster Choir College is huge,” said Paul Rardin, music director of the Mendelssohn Clulb Chorus in Philadelphia. He never attended Westminster — neither as student not teacher — but attests to its preeminent stature in the choir music world.
“They have one of the great symphonic choruses in the country, and one of the great concert choirs — a smaller ensemble that specializes in unaccompanied music, challenging, difficult, interesting new music,” he said. “So you have this one-two punch.”
Just about every professional choir in the Northeast U.S. will have Westminster alumnus in its ranks. Rardin said members of the Mendelssohn Club have been buzzing with talk about the fate of the college.
Many church musicians, choristers and organists in many traditions, including the Episcopal Church, have studied at Westminster. The Royal School of Church Music in America is housed at Westminster.
Rider, once seen as a savior for Westminster, began talking about the idea of moving the school from Princeton in 2017. There were fears that the College, in moving to the University, would lose its distinctive mission.
[Rider University] is no longer a growing institution flush with cash. Now it is seeking to close projected budget deficits while finding funding to start new programs and stanch a downward flow of enrollment.
Rider again studied moving Westminster to Lawrenceville. Rounds of protests followed, spilling into 2017. Thousands signed online petitions. A group of alumni and students fought the move with efforts including a 24-hour music marathon.
Instead of moving the school, the University decided to sell.
Westminster’s backers secured a temporary stay on the push to move the college late last month when Rider announced it would instead try to sell the choir college. But the uncertainty over Westminster’s future is far from over. Rider’s administration is still seeking significant changes to address budget gaps, enrollment struggles and rising tuition discounting. While university leaders would prefer to sell Westminster and its land as a package, they will consider divesting of them separately if necessary — a move that would most likely require the college to relocate its operations.
The decision to openly sell a nonprofit college and its land is all but unheard of in higher education. It is also noteworthy in light of current trends toward consolidations between colleges and universities that are seeking to overcome financial difficulties and meet changing student demands. Some wonder if the situation at Rider and Westminster could be a harbinger of a future where changes in higher education don’t just take the form of programmatic tweaks, closures and mergers, but instead assume a wider range of forms including asset sales, spin-offs and a frequently changing stream of affiliations.
“This is such virgin territory,” said Rider President Gregory G. Dell’Omo. “These kinds of transactions don’t take place, although it’s going to probably become more common in the future than it currently is.”
This move caught supporters of Westminster by surprise.
“None of us saw this coming,” said Constance Fee, president of a group called the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton Inc. “I think we are all — the board, the university, the coalition — we are all trying to regroup and refocus.”
Fee earned her bachelor’s degree from Westminster and went on to a multiyear opera career in Europe. Today, she is the director of vocal studies at Roberts Wesleyan College outside of Rochester, N.Y. She is also the president of the Alumni Association of Westminster Choir College.
The idea of moving Westminster from its current campus is like the idea of uprooting a tree, Fee said. It might be technically possible, but she thinks it would also probably be fatal for the university.
The Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton wants a seat at the table throughout the upcoming sale process. A year is a deceptively short period of time, Fee said. It could go quickly. She and the coalition are ready to fight against any potential sale that looks like a bad deal from Westminster’s perspective.
“We want Rider to survive and thrive, but they can’t, financially, right now, support us in the way they need to,” she said. “And they need money themselves to save their own institution.”