Rider University seeks buyer for Westminster Choir College

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LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — Rider University is looking to sell its Westminster Choir College music school and Princeton campus to another institution, university president Gregory G. Dell’Omo announced Tuesday.

Rider has hired an outside firm to seek a buyer, Dell’Omo said. He declined to comment on a sale price. A university spokeswoman later said Rider hoped to identify a buyer within a year.

“We are pretty confident there’s going to be a fair level of interest,” Dell’Omo said.

Initial reaction was swift from Westminster Choir College advocates, who declared a victory in keeping the school in tact and in Princeton.

A second option, Dell’Omo said, would be to sell the school to a buyer who will move it to its own campus.

A renowned music school, 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.

Westminster students, faculty, and alumni have been anxiously analyzing any bits of news and organizing resistance since Rider president Gregory G. 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. The group urged alumni and supporters to write letters to Rider administrators, contacted wealthy philanthropists in hopes of finding a financial benefactor for the music school, and explored historic status and other legal avenues for protecting the Princeton campus.

Westminster advocates have said Rider did not have the necessary facilities in Lawrenceville to house the school, and they worried a move would permanently disrupt the conservatory atmosphere as the roughly 460 students and their faculty are subsumed into a larger university environment.

“Such a sale would most likely put into question the long-term viability of the Choir College and its extraordinary legacy,” Joseph W. Polisi, the president of the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, wrote in a letter to Dell’Omo.

“Although I understand that your university has been grappling with economic challenges, I ask you to consider the irreparable damage that would take place within our musical ecosystem,” Polisi wrote, “if Westminster were to stop functioning.”

Dell’Omo and other university administrators, though, 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 has planned a vote of no confidence in Dell’Omo and his administration over its handling of the university’s financial challenges. That vote is planned for next month after being delayed from an initially scheduled vote this month.

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.

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