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Westminster Finds Reprieve in Rider Vote to Sell Programs, Campus Together

Rider University’s Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to find a buyer for Westminster Choir College that will enable the college to continue its musical and educational legacy, a decision that was music to the ears of students and alumni who feared that the college’s programs might be merged onto the main Rider campus or closed down completely.

“We would love to find a partner who can help preserve and enhance the tradition and the excellence of Westminster as it currently exists, and that would be one of the things that we would really look for in any potential partner,” Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo said in announcing the board’s decision.   

Rider is looking to trim costs and reduce its deficit, which is projected to reach $13 million by 2019.  Dell’Omo said in December that the board was studying the feasibility of moving Westminster’s programs to Rider’s campus in Lawrenceville, NJ, and selling the 23-acre campus in Princeton that had been Westminster’s home since 1932.

The decision brought a measure of relief to students and alumni, who had expressed concern that Rider’s main campus wouldn’t be able to provide the special facilities unique to a choir college, such as its four performance organs and multiple practice organs.  Closing the Princeton campus would also take away the close-knit nature of the college, some said.

“I feel like we’ve been heard and understood,” said Mona Davids, a parent of a Westminster student and an organizer of the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College.  “This has been the request from the Coalition from Day One. We’re very pleased with this decision, and we look forward to working with President Dell’Omo and the Board of Trustees to find a university to affiliate with.”

Rider has hired PwC (formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers) to assist in the search for a buyer, which might be a U.S. or international school, conservatory or other institution.  Dell’Omo said Rider has received some initial inquiries but declined to provide a price range that Rider would consider.

Students who attended a briefing by Dell’Omo later in the day expressed relief over the decision.

“I’m certainly hopeful moving forward that we can find an institution to work with us,” said Brian Sengdala, a graduate student in sacred music choral studies and musicology who also attended Westminster for his undergraduate music degree.  “I know from the many voices that have been raised throughout the musical community that we are an important institution to the musical fabric of the world and not just this country.  The history of Westminster is vast and deep, and embedded within the musical culture of America.”

Rebecca Stahl, a senior voice performance major, said she was happy but cautious about what the future holds for the school.  “I’m still a little wary to celebrate yet, because we don’t know who’s buying us, we don’t have anyone lined up at the moment,” she said.  “I want to hear that Westminster is going to a great school that is going to keep our legacy, a school that’s going to take all of the students with open arms that are here and are anticipating a degree from Westminster Choir College, and I hope that we can keep our name.”

The Westminster Choir was founded in Dayton, Ohio in 1920 by John Finley Williamson, who then created a choir school in 1926. The choir college was established in 1929 and, after first moving to Ithaca College, Westminster relocated to its current home near downtown Princeton in 1932.  The Westminster Symphonic Choir has sung with internationally acclaimed orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, performing under the baton of great conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Robert Shaw and Leopold Stokowski.

Financial difficulties of its own prompted Westminster to seek a new owner in the early 1990s, and it merged with Rider in 1992.  In addition to the choir college, which is part of Rider’s Westminster College of the Arts, Westminster also operates the Westminster Conservatory, which provides community music programs including private music lessons, group lessons for children, and the Westminster Community Orchestra.

Dell’Omo said the board considered the input of the Coalition and students as it began to study its options.

“It became pretty apparent early on that that option of moving things out of Princeton into Lawrenceville, regardless of the buildings we would build and the facilities and so forth, there was a sense that that would just not serve the Westminster Choir College and the experience, the education, the overall way in which it operates,” he said.  Rider’s preference is to find an institution that will purchase Westminster and keep the Princeton campus intact, he added.  If such a buyer can’t be found, Rider will sell Westminster and its programs to another school and sell the campus property separately.

“We’ve been told that they are going to prioritize institutions that will keep Westminster in Princeton, and our hopes going forward are that they choose Westminster’s future and success over a financial number,” said junior Lucy Watts.  “We chose Westminster because of its history and its potential success for our personal futures.”

Standing nearby, fellow junior Julia Nigro added, “We hope that any future school will remember that as they look to buy us.”

(Note: By way of full disclosure, WWFM has agreements with Westminster to broadcast several of its concerts, and A Tempo host Rachel Katz is a member of the Westminster Community Orchestra.)

Rachel Katz is the host of A Tempo which airs Saturdays at 7 pm.
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