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Judge: Negotiations over sale of Westminster Choir College can continue

Rider University can continue negotiating the sale of its century-old music conservatory, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Students walk between buildings at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ on March 3, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Students walk between buildings at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ on March 3, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead moreDavid Maialatti

Rider University can continue negotiating the controversial sale of its century-old Westminster Choir College, a judge ruled Friday.

The decision in federal court in Trenton came as the university's faculty union, the American Association of University Professors, sought an injunction to stop any sale while arbitration over pending layoffs looms.

In October, the university announced plans to lay off 70 faculty members, both full-time and part-time, on Aug. 31. School officials have said the potential buyer plans to rehire the professors, but the union is skeptical and is contesting the layoffs.

University officials have not identified the prospective new owner of the celebrated school, but described it as an "international partner from Asia" who intends to hire the college's faculty after a deal is finalized.

In blocking the injunction, U.S. District Judge Peter G. Sheridan said the school had fulfilled its obligation to notify professors of layoffs and enter into arbitration.

"The professors are looking to preserve the job not for the money… but because it is a great job," he said, but "Rider will continue to be an ongoing institution next year … there's a remedy here for professors as they go to arbitration."

Throughout the nearly four-hour hearing, Rider's attorneys contended that Westminster has added to the university's financial troubles. Rider has been working to stem its deficit by increasing enrollment, but its lawyers said in court papers that Westminster's costly one-on-one instructional model and low student-faculty ratio posed a burden.

The music conservatory, on a separate 23-acre Princeton campus, has seen total deficits of $10.7 million over the last three years, according to court documents. It enrolls around 400 students each year and tuition is a little over $37,000 annually, according to its website. Rider, with its main campus in Lawrenceville, has a total enrollment around 4,000.

"This is a step in the direction that Rider needs to go," Michael Lebowich, an attorney representing the university from New York-based law firm Proskauer Rose, said of the planned sale.

Rider spokeswoman Kristine Brown said the university is working to finalize a term sheet with the prospective buyer and aims to complete the deal this spring.

"Rider is engaging in this process to find a partner for Westminster to ensure the future of the college is long," she said. "Westminster is still operating, open, and recruiting a class for next year."

In the courtroom were a handful of professors from Westminster Choir College and Rider University who were disappointed by the judge's decision.

Joel Phillips, a professor of music theory and composition at the college, said he has been teaching at the school, his "second home," for 33 years. He said he was blindsided by the layoff notice.

Despite assurances that the buyer will rehire the professors, Phillips said, he feels uneasy.

"Those are wishful thoughts. The school will have their hands washed if Westminster is sold," he said. "Show me a piece of paper that says [the buyer] is committed to that."

Jeff Halpern, the union's chief grievance officer, said the group would consider appealing Friday's decision. 

At an arbitration hearing set for March 29, Halpern said, the union will argue that the layoffs breach its contract and will present audits showing that Westminster Choir College is not in a financial crisis.

"This is not the end of the line for us," he said.

Founded in 1926, the college merged with Rider University in 1992. Its symphonic choir has performed with major orchestras throughout the United States and Europe, including the New York Philharmonic, and at the New York World's Fairs in 1939-40 and 1964-65.