Rider University seeks buyer for Westminster Choir College

Rider University president Dr. Gregory Dell’Omo passes by approximately 300 students, faculty and alumni gathered outside Rider University’s North Hall March 28, 2017 to protest a proposal being considered by the school’s trustees during a meeting inside to move Westminster Choir College from its location in nearby Princeton to the main campus in Lawrenceville. Dell’Omo is attending the meeting.

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — There was a time when Rider University, anchored by a business school and known as Rider College, saved the well-known but financially struggling Westminster Choir College from collapse.

That was in 1992, and Rider was the hero. In the 25 years since, Westminster Choir College has operated on its longtime campus in Princeton, a small, tight-knit environment largely separate from its parent university in Lawrenceville.

Tuesday afternoon, the university’s president, Gregory G. Dell’Omo, announced the ironic result of a months-long study: Rider University will look for buyers for the music school and Princeton campus. Rider bought Westminster to save the music school; now it hopes to sell Westminster to help save itself.

“There have been some preliminary inquiries from other institutions, which I don't want to name at this point in time, but we are pretty confident that there's going to be a fair level of interest in people wanting to talk to us about Westminster Choir College,” Dell’Omo said. “Again, the reputation, the quality is phenomenal, and we think there will be a lot of interest out there.”

Camera icon David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J.

Westminster students and faculty welcomed the news and said they were hopeful a buyer would be found, allowing them to keep their school intact and campus in Princeton.

“Everybody is really relieved,” said Monica Ross, 19, a sophomore from Philadelphia studying voice performance. “It’s kind of like a big weight being lifted off, because no one has to worry about, ‘Oh my god, are they going to close our school?’”

Camera icon David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Williamson Hall at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ on March 3, 2017..

Dell’Omo and other university administrators have painted a dire picture of a private school struggling with declining enrollment and facing financial deficits over many years. Rider last year enrolled slightly more than 5,000 students, down 1,000 from six years prior and the lowest in at least two decades.

Facing long-term pressures, like many private colleges, Rider has sought to reduce costs and find new partnerships with other schools to grow enrollment and facilities use. In 2015, the university announced faculty layoffs and program closures before the faculty union agreed to concessions that included a two-year wage freeze.

Rider’s branch of the American Association of University Professors last month delayed a vote of no confidence in Dell’Omo and his administration over its handling of the university’s financial challenges. That vote has been rescheduled for next month.

Dell’Omo declined to comment on a sale price. Administrators hope to identify a buyer within a year, a spokeswoman said.

“We’re obviously looking at other not-for-profit higher education institutions, like us, especially music schools that fall into that category,” he said. “Everything from there to international institutions that might be interested in being near Princeton, to for-profit operations.”

A second option, Dell’Omo said, would be to sell the music school to a buyer who will move the college to its own campus. Rider would then sell the Princeton property to a different buyer.

Camera icon Clem Murray / Staff Photographer
Approximately 300 students, faculty and alumni gathered outside Rider University’s North Hall to protest a proposal being considered by the school’s trustees during a meeting inside to move Westminster Choir College from its location in nearby Princeton to the main campus in Lawrenceville.

Westminster Choir College students regularly perform with major orchestras, including last week with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The final concerts of the school year for the Westminster Symphonic Choir will take place in May with the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center.

The renowned music school was once independent, tracing its roots to the 1920 founding of the Westminster Choir in Dayton, Ohio. The college moved to Princeton in 1932 before the merger into Rider.

At that time, and twice since, Rider considered moving the school to Lawrenceville but decided against it; the most recent study, authorized in October, was the fourth analysis of a merged Lawrenceville campus.

“It became pretty apparent early on that that option, of moving things out of Princeton into Lawrenceville, regardless of the buildings we’d build and the facilities and so forth, there just was a sense that would not serve the Westminster Choir College,” Dell’Omo said Tuesday.

For months, Westminster students, faculty, and alumni had been anxiously analyzing any bits of news and organizing resistance since Dell’Omo said in December that the university was considering selling its 23-acre Westminster campus.

In that time, the university said, it was studying its options, including a “one-campus model” that would move the music school to Rider’s main campus in Lawrenceville.

Alumni formed a Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton and took the lead in organizing protests to draw attention to Rider’s proposal.

Camera icon Clem Murray / Staff Photographer
Approximately 300 students, faculty and alumni gathered outside Rider University’s North Hall to protest a proposal being considered by the school’s trustees during a meeting inside to move Westminster Choir College from its location in nearby Princeton to the main campus in Lawrenceville.

Westminster advocates worried for months that Rider would announce a merger of the campuses, a move they said would permanently disrupt the conservatory atmosphere as the roughly 460 students and their faculty are subsumed into a larger university environment. Supporters, including the president of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, wrote to Dell’Omo to urge him against such a move.

Still, it remains unclear how the sale of Westminster to another school would change Rider’s larger financial picture. Dell’Omo emphasized that the Westminster decision was part of a broader plan to make Rider sustainable.

Camera icon Clem Murray / Staff Photographer
Art Taylor (center), president of the Rider University chapter of American Association of University Professors, addresses approximately 300 students, faculty and alumni gathered Tuesday morning outside Rider University’s North Hall.

Art Taylor, president of the Rider faculty union, was skeptical Westminster could not continue to be part of Rider, or that it is central to the university’s woes.

“I have not seen any financial information to indicate that Westminster is a cash drain on Rider University,” he said.

“Nobody’s ever come to us and said, ‘Wow, Westminster is just bleeding us, it’s just so expensive, that’s the problem,’” Taylor said.