Anxiety was high Wednesday among about 70 full- and part-time faculty members at Westminster Choir College after they received emails Tuesday containing layoff notices from Rider University, which operates the 23-acre music campus in Princeton.
The university said in a statement that the action was no more than a formality in a plan to "secure the future" of the choir college by selling it to an entity it has not named but described as a "potential international partner."
In the statement, Rider president Gregory G. Dell'Omo said the university had identified a "partner who intends to operate WCC as a nonprofit music school in Princeton," and that the partner "would want the current WCC faculty and staff to continue employment" after the transition from Rider.
A year ago, Rider began studying whether to relocate Westminster to its main campus in Lawrenceville, and started to strategize about how to increase enrollment in the highly specialized college after the university determined it could face a $13 million shortfall by 2019. About 400 students attend Westminster.
Rider's trustees in March voted to divest Westminster Choir College and the Princeton campus. The school hired a firm to seek potential buyers for the property, a prime piece of real estate in the middle of pricey Princeton, not far from Princeton University.
Kristine Brown, a Rider spokeswoman, said in August that the board would begin negotiations and due diligence procedures with a potential, undisclosed buyer for a sale next spring.
"Our goal in this negotiation is to assure that our faculty remain employed at the end of this transition, and this entity has said that it is its goal, for our faculty to remain," Brown said Wednesday. "We have been assured by this entity that it understands that it is our faculty and its professional reputation that has made Westminster Choir College the renowned choir college that it is."
Brown said the university cannot name the buyer because of a nondisclosure agreement until the deal is completed, expected to be before the end of 2017. Published reports have indicated it is an Asia-based entity with no experience or accreditation in higher education that runs foreign for-profit K-12 schools.
The Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a faculty union, said Wednesday that it would file a grievance arguing that the potential layoffs fail to meet contractual requirements.
An agreement the union has with the university says layoffs may only occur in cases of "financial exigency or the demonstrated financial need to eliminate or curtail programs or courses of instruction to protect the well-being of the university."
The union contends that the alleged funding shortfalls enumerated by the board of directors are false.
"They have fabricated this financial need for a purpose that has nothing to do with dropping enrollment, but more to do other issues … with them at one point wanting to build more buildings without having to do a capital campaign to accomplish it," said Elizabeth Scheiber, a faculty member and president of the Rider chapter of the AAUP.
Scheiber said that during contract negotiations this spring, the union gave back $6.8 million in raises, medical benefit costs, and retirement compensation.
"We certainly aren't happy about having done that … but at the time we felt it was necessary to do it," Scheiber said. "We tried to be cooperative but ultimately, whether the need is true or not has become very murky."
Scheiber said the union has 20 days to file the grievance and will take "some time" over the next couple of weeks to have the college's data analyzed by experts in higher-education finance.
"In addition, we have a lot of doubts about what a supposed for-profit entity that has never operated in the U.S. may do," said Scheiber. "Until a contract is signed that states it, a verbal assurance is not a guarantee for our members that they will have jobs at the end of this process."
Westminster Choir College was founded in 1926 as an undergraduate and graduate college for men and women to obtain an education in careers of music education, voice, piano and organ performance, pedagogy, music theory, composition, and other studies. The college is said to contain the largest voice faculty in the world, and the Westminster Symphonic Choir has won Grammy Awards for its recordings. The school has produced notable alumni, including mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore and Anwar Robinson, a finalist on American Idol.