February 26, 2018; Inside Higher Ed
A small choir college in Princeton, New Jersey, has found itself in the center of a legal tangle that has nearly all its stakeholder groups up in arms. Rider University has announced its intention to sell Westminster Choir College to Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Co., formerly known as Jiangsu Zhongtai Bridge Steel Structure Co., Limited. Rider says the sale is in the best interests of Westminster, but students, staff, alumni, and donors are all furious, and several lawsuits have been filed to stop the sale.
Rider University President Gregory G. Dell’Omo says that Kaiwen is “well positioned to continue the significant investment in Westminster that Rider has made over the past 25 years.” Dell’Omo told Inside Higher Ed’s Rick Seltzer, “We’ve always known that the future of music education—you look at piano and vocal and choral—it really is toward Asia. We’ve had a difficult time trying to tap into the Asian market. They understood the value.”
The university maintains that Rider does not have the resources to continue to invest in Westminster, so the sale is in the college’s best interest.
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.
The 2014 Form 990 showed a net asset drop of about $1.7 million, and the 2015 Form 990 showed a bigger drop of over $4.5 million. According to that form, the university still maintains a net asset balance of over $136 million.
One lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the neighboring Princeton Theological Seminary. The land for Westminster was donated in 1935 with a gift covenant that “required Westminster to train ministers of music for evangelical churches and teach the Bible to the whole school for at least one hour per week, according to the lawsuit. If the covenant is broken, the land is to become the seminary’s property.” The seminary argues that “Rider’s intention to sell the campus and use the proceeds to fund Rider’s operations that are unrelated to the continued operation of Westminster violates the Agreement and public policy,” so the land is forfeit unless the sale is halted.
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Another suit, filed on behalf of board members, students, parents, and donors, argues that “Rider University’s expressed intent to close Westminster and sell its Princeton campus is in direct violation of the 1991 merger agreement under which Rider agreed it would continue to operate, maintain and fund Westminster Choir College and its Princeton campus, except under limited financial circumstances that have not arisen.”
And finally, according to Seltzer, “The Rider AAUP is already in a grievance process related to what it believes were unfair layoff notices sent to Westminster faculty last year to cover the chance the college closes if it is not sold. That process will continue despite last week’s sale announcement. It is expected to go before an arbitrator in March.”
A nonprofit coalition called The Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College in Princeton, Inc. has been formed by concerned alumni. It is not a plaintiff in the lawsuits, but it has become a place for concerned stakeholders to try to raise support for their cause. In January 2017, students and alumni held a 24-hour marathon concert, with hymns and choral pieces from volunteers in the community.
The buyer, Kaiwen, only recently entered the field of education; previously, they made construction materials like steel girders. They have some recent experience with arts education, but primarily in the domestic Chinese market, and none in higher ed.
“It is completely beyond belief that the buyer has the ability, not to mention the desire, to run a world-renowned choir college,” Elizabeth Scheiber, a professor of French and Italian and President of the American Association of University Professors, said in a press release issued on Monday.
Inside Higher Ed reports that “although Kaiwen is a for-profit company, it will run Westminster as a nonprofit organization,” but Patch claims that “Kaiwan Educational Technology, Inc. stated that it is purchasing the college to increase its own profitability.” Other sources have expressed general concern about the influence of Chinese stakeholders on American educational institutions.
It seems that many fear the sale of Westminster to Kaiwen will save it financially and doom it in other ways. Scheiber told Patch that “the proposed sale has also led to a loss of public confidence in Rider, a collapse in donations to Westminster, and a general decline in morale among all of Rider’s stakeholders.” The Philadelphia Inquirer said that “some Westminster alumni said they have been withholding donations, and some students and parents wonder whether to consider other schools.”
Even if it is possible that a for-profit construction company halfway across the world can faithfully serve the mission of a small, nonprofit, liberal arts music school in New Jersey, it seems that Westminster’s community feels that something would be lost in pursuing this path to financial stability. What stakeholders and non-financial factors, if any, did Dell’Omo and other decision makers consider when they agreed to the sale? Inquiring minds are demanding answers.—Erin Rubin