Lawyer promises lengthy battle if Rider University shuts down Westminster Choir College

Princeton lawyer Bruce is the lawyer for the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College. Photo: Krystal Knapp.

Princeton lawyer Bruce Afran foresees a lengthy court battle that could take years to resolve if Rider University closes down the school or allows it to be moved to another campus.

At a press conference Friday, flanked by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and members of the Coalition to Save Westminster Choir College, Afran was firm about the group’s position that the closure of the school at the downtown Princeton campus will trigger litigation.

“The coalition is committed to fighting any sale that does not leave it intact as an operating organization. It needs to be keep here. We as a coalition will take legal action if this campus is closed. It should not be closed,” Afran said.

“If the campus is sold to developer who wants to build 200 townhouses, that is going to provoke litigation,” he said. “If it is sold to a private day school to operate a secondary school, that will provoke litigation. If it is closed and moved to another location, that will provoke litigation,” he said.

The group has communicated its position clearly to Rider University officials, Afran said. Some administrators for the Princeton Public Schools, school board members, and town leaders want Rider to sell the campus to the school district. Afran said the group would also fight such a move.

“Absolutely and without any ambiguity, any option for the Board of Education to buy this campus and turn it into a public school campus or community education campus is not on our table. That will provoke absolute litigation and will unfortunately pit part of the community against another part,” he said. “We believe the Board of Education has the insight and wisdom not to go down that route. In addition, it would require a bond issue of at least $40 million on Rider’s terms.”

Afran, who has represented residents in several controversial, high-profile cases, said he has never been in a situation like he is now with the Westminster case. He said every person who talks to him about the issue opposes Westminster’s move from Princeton.

“There is very little community interest in turning this elite, vaunted institution into a high school cafeteria or place for adult education,” he said. “We have enough of those facilities. We’re swimming in facilities.”

Westminster merged with Rider University in 1991. Afran said the merger agreement stipulates that Rider must operate the choir college unless it is “mutually, substantially adverse to both institutions.” He said it would be very difficult for Rider to justify any sale that closes the school. Afran said the school could be maintained by Rider, maintained by another educational institution on the Princeton campus, or spun off as an independent school again. “But closing its programs, breaking it apart, and separating its faculty is destructive to education,” he said. “The goal of bringing it back was not to throw the baby out the window. It was to make it a permanent cultural institution. To cut it off would be academic barbarism.”

Afran said the schools have grown together over last 25 years. “Rider is better and stronger for Westminster, and Westminster is stronger for Rider. To break this partnership apart would be destructive of something very important in New Jersey,” he said. “Westminster is our Juilliard. It is our Curtis Institute. Our friends across the street at Princeton University have an arts and music program as well. With no disrespect, both together can form a synergy in this community. Westminster is known throughout the world. For any academic institution to try to monetize it rather than stay together and work together would be wrong.”

Princeton University is in the process of building a $300 million arts and transit neighborhood on Alexander Street.

“They’re not doing that because it does not yield results. They are making that investment because as the governor (Kean) said, it is vital to the future of both the institution and the community and the state,” he said. “There was controversy about the project because of the removal of the train, but there was absolute unity in the community about the value of the Lewis Arts Center. It would be horribly ironic for community to be hosting the construction of a $300 million program that Princeton is building, and at the same time to close an 80-year program that has reached the peak of academic distinction.”

Supporters of the choir college said the school has built relationships with numerous local, state and Mid-Atlantic organizations and institutions over the last 80 years. They argue the synergy can’t be replicated anywhere else.

“It would be like moving Christ Church in Oxford  to Leeds, England,” Afran said, adding that a move would cost about $80 million. Folding the programs into other schools would break apart what is special about the choir college, he said.

A $4.5 million bond issue helped finance the choir college’s new performing arts center. Afran said Rider should be required to pay the money back if the campus is closed. He also said the merger agreement stipulates that the land must revert to the seminary if the school is closed. Afran claimed it would cost Rider $2 million to buy out the seminary.  Westminster has an endowment that must be used for the choir college. The coalition said it has offered to spin the college off as an independent school. The group would give Rider 50 percent of the endowment to cover the projected $10 million deficit the school officials say Rider will face in the coming years. Afran said the coalition has financial backers and professionals who are ready to support and run the school if it becomes independent.

“If litigation has to go forward, it will take many years and it will not allow Rider to close a deal on this property,” said Afran, who fought the Institute for Advanced Study’s plans to build faculty housing for about six years. “Rider will have far worse financial difficulties than it does today if tries to close this school.”

On Friday afternoon, the same day as the press conference, Rider University President Gregory Dell’Omo sent out an email updating the Westminster and Rider University community on progress to find a new partner for Westminster Choir College.

PricewaterhouseCoopers identified and communicated with more 280 potential partners, and Rider has received multiple proposals for each of three scenarios, he wrote. The Rider University Board of Trustees will review the proposals through the summer.

The three scenarios are, in priority:

1) An institution that is interested in purchasing the property and the choir college with the purpose of continuing to operate the school in Princeton

2) An institution interested in acquiring and relocating the choir college programs to another location

3) An entity that is interested in buying the property if the college is moved or closed down.

“We understand and appreciate the interest that all of you have in the future of Westminster. As I have committed to you, I will continue to keep you apprised of this work moving forward and will share additional updates throughout the summer,” Dell’Omo wrote.

This is the second story in a series about the potential sale of Westminster Choir College. Next: School board gives the green light to submit offer for Westminster campus.