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N.J.'s world-renowned music school deserves preservation, not sale | Opinion

I believe that Rider has no right, either legally or morally, to a windfall from selling Westminster.

Williamson Hall at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ.
Williamson Hall at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff

Westminster Choir College, New Jersey's iconic cultural institution, faces an existential crisis because its steward is attempting to sell it. If this sale occurs, it will likely close a chapter in American musical history. One of the world's leading music schools, Westminster has for nearly a century educated many preeminent musicians, seen its celebrated ensembles participate in history-marking events, and brought endless joy to audiences worldwide.

Westminster choirs have performed with the world's greatest conductors, from Toscanini to Bernstein, from Stokowski to Nézet-Séguin. The music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and newly appointed director of New York's Metropolitan Opera is himself a product of Westminster training.

Yet New Jersey-based Rider University, with which WCC merged in 1992, plans to sell Westminster and the valuable 23–acre property it occupies in Princeton to a Chinese business. The proposed sale, conducted in a secretive process, has provoked outrage and lawsuits, as well as calls from prominent figures in the world of music and politics for Rider to reconsider its plan.

The buyer is a for-profit entity called Kaiwen Educational Technology Co. Ltd., which until January traded stock under the name of Jiangsu Zhongtai Bridge Steel Structure Co. Ltd. A holding company controlled by the Chinese state owns a controlling stake in Kaiwen.

Kaiwen has no experience in higher education and less than two years' experience operating for-profit K-12 schools in Beijing, making it ill-suited to continue the nonprofit educational mission of Westminster Choir College. If Westminster were to fail, Kaiwen would own Westminster's prestigious name, a property and facilities already zoned for education, and student residences just blocks from Princeton University. I believe this would make it the perfect spot for the company's existing business strategy, which includes for-profit high schools for Chinese students who seek admission to Ivy League colleges.

Kaiwen claims it will pay Rider $40 million for Westminster, create a nonprofit corporation in New Jersey, and continue Westminster's educational purpose through this new 501(c) (3) nonprofit corporation. However, in the company's own "Notice of Signing an Agreement on the Intention of Overseas Investment," the company states the purpose of acquiring Westminster is to increase its corporate profitability — a goal fundamentally opposite of the nonprofit status it claims it will seek.

The sale is the subject of lawsuits brought by key Westminster stakeholders, including students, parents, donors, and alumni, who allege the university engaged in a fraudulent and secretive process to divest itself of WCC in violation of the merger agreement. In addition, Princeton Theological Seminary, which has rights involving the Princeton property the school sits on, has challenged the sale. Furthermore, there is  pending arbitration by the Rider professors' union regarding the Rider administration's violation of its bargaining agreement with regard to the improper layoff of Westminster's unionized faculty

Rider's actions have taken a toll on the WCC community. Current students are concerned about graduating. Prospective students are wondering whether they should turn elsewhere. Donors and alumni are worried. Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who spoke on behalf of preserving Westminster Choir College, said, "There have to be other solutions. … Westminster is a jewel."

When Rider merged with Westminster, it gained its assets and reputational value at no cost — a reputation that helped the then-Rider College attain university status. I believe that Rider has no right, either legally or morally, to a windfall from selling Westminster. If Rider's president and board of trustees conclude the university's mission is no longer compatible with that of a world-renowned arts institution, they should seek a partner for Westminster on the same basis as when Rider acquired it — a no-cost transfer.

A diligent search for such a partner that includes meaningful input from all Westminster stakeholders would produce a legitimate partner. At the least, Rider should return Westminster to the independent status it had prior to the merger. Westminster Choir College should be preserved, not sold. Gov. Kean's "jewel" deserves no less.

Joel Phillips is a professor of composition and music theory at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, coauthor of three widely used textbooks published by W. W. Norton & Co. in the Musician's Guide series, and a former chief reader for the Advanced Placement Examination in Music Theory.