October 31, 2019 | By Susan Elliott, Musical America
Nearly one third of the students of Westminster Choir College have filed a lawsuit against Rider University—which merged with WCC in 1991—to block its move of the conservatory from its storied Princeton, NJ, campus to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus. That the enrollment of WCC has dropped from a high of 460, in 2016, to its current low of 300 is said to be directly attributable to Rider’s attempts to sell the school to a Chinese firm, starting in 2016. When that failed last June, Rider immediately announced it would close WCC and move the entire operation—or what’s left of it—to its Lawrenceville campus by September 2020.
This latest lawsuit, which so far names 71 plaintiffs, a mix of mostly upper and lower class students, brings to three the number of suits filed against Rider’s move, all in the Superior Court of New Jersey. The student’s complaint is similar to the original one, the so-called McMorris complaint, initially filed by a group of WCC alumni and supporters in September 2018 and amended last August to include WCC faculty. The third suit against Rider's move of the Westminster campus is by Princeton Theological Seminary, named in the land’s bequest to the school in 1935, which stipulates that it continue to be used to train ministers of music in the Christian tradition.
As in the McMorris complaint, the students make the point that Rider’s plan to sell to a Chinese firm with expertise in manufacturing—rather than education—damaged the school’s reputation, enrollment, and donor pool. When that proposed sale, subject to investigation by the State Attorney General, finally fell through, Rider’s plan to absorb WCC into its Lawrenceville campus, and sell the Princeton land, is, illegal—as in, not in keeping with its original merger agreement with Westminster.
Among the points cited in the latest 71-page lawsuit:
--that the “plaintiffs will be materially harmed and affected by Rider University’s stated intent to move Westminster Choir College…”
--that the action “concerns the improper wastage and disposition of a charitable property”
--that Rider has failed in its obligation, as outlined in its 1991 WCC merger agreement, “to maintain the ‘separate identity’ of Westminster and to continue to operate the Choir College at the Westminster Princeton campus in accord with its traditional mission and purpose…”
--that “Rider’s plan to sell Westminster to the Kaiwen group, announced on June 21, 2018, resulted in the reduction of the 2018-19 entering class from 95 undergraduate students to less than 25 students and the complete loss of virtually all donations from Westminster’s wide and committed giving community.”
--that the plan to sell to Kaiwen “resulted in the loss of at least two-thirds of the incoming student body in both the 2019-20 and 2018-19 academic years, the shrinking of its choral groups, the termination of the sophomore chorus due to the lack of incoming voices, the impending loss of its contracts with the Philharmonic and the other performance venues…, departure of certain key faculty and the loss of virtually all donations to Westminster since 2016.”
--that “in the current 2019-20 school year, only 35 undergraduate students have accepted admission to Westminster and only 18 graduate students. Prior to the announcement of the plan to move or sell this college, Westminster Choir College had had a full complement of entering students.”
For all of Rider University's claims that it will continue to maintain conservatory training standards on its Lawrenceville campus, the plaintiffs point out that is has none of the facilities for a proper conservatory—rehearsal spaces, private studios, musical instruments, or other instructional equipment—and is not at all prepared, nor attempting to be, to accommodate the needs of WCC students and faculty.