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Westminster Choir College fights to protect ‘culture and identity’ amid talk of campus consolidation

“They need to really sit down and talk and listen to all of us.”

Unexpected comments from Rider University's president about the future of its renowned Westminster Choir College in Princeton shocked the music school's students, faculty, and alumni, and a dearth of information since has fueled fear for the future.

Speculation has run rampant in the two weeks since Rider president Gregory G. Dell'Omo said during two Dec. 1 meetings that the private university is considering selling the 23-acre Westminster campus in Princeton and moving the music school to the university's main campus in Lawrenceville.

Although the university emphasizes that it is only studying such a move at this time, the Westminster community has begun mobilizing, sharing information on Facebook pages, and signing online petitions to preserve their campus.

"We're trying to focus our efforts on really questioning the leadership," said James Busby, vice president of the Westminster Alumni Council, who received his bachelor's degree from Westminster in 1985 and master's degree in 1992. "Everything that they've done at this point shows us that it's going to be difficult to work together to move ahead on this."

Five days after the university president's initial comments, Dell'Omo and trustee chair Michael B. Kennedy sent an email that noted Rider's enrollment declines in recent years and financial crisis, which last year led to announced layoffs and program closures before the faculty agreed to concessions.

"The university is facing continued deficits over the next several years which cannot be sustained without adversely impacting the university as a whole," the president and trustee said in the email blast to students, faculty and alumni committees.

Last school year, the university enrolled slightly more than 5,000 students, down 1,000 students from six years prior and the lowest in at least two decades.

Westminster, which has a stable enrollment of about 420 students, offers majors including music performance, education, and theory and composition.

No decisions have been made regarding Westminster, Dell'Omo and Kennedy stressed in their message, noting that at this time, they are only studying "the feasibility of a one-campus model."

Busby, now headmaster of a private school in Los Angeles, said that he questioned the Rider administration's judgment in how it announced the news — "this was laughable, frankly" — and worried that it would affect next year's enrollment.

Westminster, which traces its roots to the founding of Westminster Choir in 1920 in Dayton, Ohio, moved to Princeton in 1932 and merged with Rider in 1992. At that time, Rider explored the idea of bringing the music school to the Lawrenceville campus but decided against it.

Since then, the university has studied the one-campus idea several more times — the last in 2006, a spokeswoman said.

"This study will once again revisit and analyze the feasibility of such a model," Rider spokeswoman Kristine A. Brown said in a statement. Rider has indicated its study will continue through February, when trustees will make decisions based on the results.

Jeff Halpern, the university faculty union's chief grievance officer and contract administrator, said he doubted that a new study would find a fundamentally different situation from years past.

"This is certainly one of our more difficult financial moments," he said, "but I'm at a loss to really understand why you needed more information than you already had."

Students, faculty, and alumni said they're worried the study is merely a formality to cover a foregone conclusion that would dismantle the Westminster experience.

"The culture and identity of the school are unique," said Anna Marie Friars, 26, a 2012 Westminster graduate originally from West Deptford and former student body president. "And I think lots of that would be lost in a campus move, in an irreparable way."

Thomas Faracco, a voice professor who has been at Westminster since 1983 and received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from the school, said recent weeks have brought faculty mistrust of administration to new levels.

"It's something that's been there for a long time, and it's all come to a head, especially with the way this has all been communicated to us," he said. "They need to really sit down and talk and listen to all of us."

Christian Koller, 18, a freshman studying music education and voice performance, said the news had been a distraction during finals week — "the timing couldn't be any worse" — and that he had been unable to attend any student forums because the scheduling conflicted with required rehearsals and classes.

"There hasn't really been any way to actually be heard. It seems as if communication is an afterthought between students and administration," he said, "and it doesn't really pertain to the conversation — for them, at least."

Koller walks up the dining hall stairs every day where his parents, both Westminster alumni, met. He said he worries about losing the history of the campus, the tightly knit atmosphere of the school, the intense focus on music.

So, like others, he is beginning to organize.

"We think, what are the odds? What are our chances? And they're looking lower and lower," Koller said. "But we're also not getting any new information."