Anxiety rises as Rider nears decision on Westminster Choir College

Dan Wells, 21, left, a junior from Philadelphia, works with professor Tom Faracco during a tutoring session in his office at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ on March 3, 2017.

Rider University is nearing a decision on the future of its Westminster Choir College campus in Princeton, and Westminster students, faculty, and alumni — scared, frustrated, and angry since the news broke in December — are steeling themselves for the worst.

“I feel very anxious, especially because the community here is at stake when that decision comes through,” said Guillermo Pasarin, 19, a freshman music theory and composition student from Miami.

“We’re all very nervous about what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re all just hoping for the best.”

Rider president Gregory G. Dell’Omo said in December that the university, struggling with declining enrollment and facing financial deficits, was considering selling the 23-acre Westminster campus and moving the music school to Rider’s main campus in Lawrenceville. Rider trustees, working with senior administrators, have been doing a study in the months since, and the university expects a decision this month.

“As we work toward a fact-based decision in the coming weeks, our goal has remained the same: explore all avenues and options to ensure a sustainable future for Rider University as a whole,” Rider spokeswoman Kristine A. Brown said in a statement. “We appreciate the thoughtful input and recommendations put forward thus far and look forward to sharing more information from the board at the appropriate time.”

After Dell’Omo’s announcement in December, shocked alumni quickly took the lead in organizing protests and formed a Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton.

That gave some hope of saving the campus, alumni and parents of Westminster students said. But as the study has progressed with little information released publicly, they have begun to worry. No news, several said, feels like bad news.

“I thought that this fight we were putting up would be very clear and evident to Rider that they cannot shut down the campus,” said Hope Osborn, 30, a 2008 graduate who earned her master’s two years later. Osborn, whose sister is a senior at Westminster, rushed to campus for a singing protest the day after the announcement.

“And now it seems a little bit too real that they might shut it down,” she said.

Osborn and others fear a move to Lawrenceville would irreparably damage the prestigious choir college, disrupting the  conservatory atmosphere as the roughly 460 students and their faculty are subsumed into a larger university environment.

But Rider, like many private colleges, is struggling.

The university last year enrolled slightly more than 5,000 students, down 1,000 from six years prior and the lowest in at least two decades. In 2015, the university announced faculty layoffs and program closures before the faculty union agreed to concessions, including a two-year wage freeze.

Rider was once Westminster’s savior. Formerly an independent school that traces its roots to the founding of the Westminster Choir in 1920 in Dayton, Ohio, the college moved to Princeton in 1932 and, in a period of financial distress, merged with Rider in 1992.

At that time, and twice since, Rider considered moving the college to its Lawrenceville campus but decided against it.

“It’s kind of a cruel irony that even though we merged with Rider to save Westminster, Rider may end up pulling the rug out from under Westminster,” said Patrick K. Freer, who earned a Westminster bachelor’s in 1988 and master’s in 1993.

Many Westminster advocates impatiently await a decision.

“Now there seems to be this fatigue,” said Brian Dougherty, a 1997 Westminster graduate. “I feel tired. I feel like, get on with it, what’s taking so long? … It’s so incredibly frustrating, but it’s also been going on for several months.”

Many have expressed frustration with what they see as a lack of transparency. Students and faculty said they were not satisfied with responses when Dell’Omo held events — “Pretty much his answer to everything he was asked was, ‘We’re taking everything into consideration,” said Thomas Faracco, a voice professor at Westminster since 1983 and two-time alumnus of the school.

“It’s just incredibly frustrating to not ever get told what’s going on, and it feels like they don’t respect the community a lot,” said Andrew Sullivan, 19, a freshman from Swedesboro.

Brown said the study is complex and trustees need the time and space to complete it before commenting.

“I know that it’s difficult to hear that the board is still undertaking a study and no decision has been made,” she said, “but that is really what we can say at this point.”

On Tuesday, two Rider faculty members plan to introduce a vote of no confidence of Dell’Omo and his administrative team. The resolution does not specifically focus on the Westminster situation, said  Art Taylor, the president of Rider’s faculty union. Other faculty members have expressed support of the president.

“It is unfortunate that the faculty union is seeking to create negotiating leverage, regardless of the damage that it can do, at a time when we need to come together to solve the important challenges we face,” Brown said in a statement.

Pending a decision on the campus, some Westminster alumni said they have been withholding donations, and some students and parents wonder whether to consider other schools.

Pat Guth, 56, who met her husband, Gary, 59, at Westminster (both graduated in 1981), said she would remove Westminster from her will if it loses its home in Princeton.

“As the day comes closer, we’re afraid that there isn’t a viable solution to save the campus,” she said.

“Rider owns the property. What can a bunch of riled alums do?” she said. “Can we do anything except be heard and hope that they’ll listen?”