Rider University, its professors head to court over sale of choir college

Rider University’s decision to sell its Westminster Choir College has its professors’ union headed to federal court Friday seeking an injunction against any deal so the instructors can fight their possible termination.

The Lawrence-headquartered university announced early last year they planned to sell the nearly century-old choir college in Princeton due to ongoing financial woes.

In legal papers filed recently, Rider paints a bleak financial picture of itself in bolstering its case that it needs to sell Westminster. 

In August, Rider said they had a potential buyer, and while not naming the entity, said the interested party wants to keep the music school at its 23-acre campus in Princeton, operate it as a non-profit music school and keep the current faculty and staff.

While trying to consummate the deal, though, the university issued layoff notices to Westminster professors, saying it was a precaution, and the university hoped to close the deal, and the layoffs would not actually occur until August of 2018.

The union – the college’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors – responded by filing for arbitration, which is scheduled for the end of March. At stake are about 70 full- and part-time professors and librarians at the music school’s campus.

Westminster Choir College professors issued layoff notices

In legal papers filed ahead of the Friday hearing, in which a judge will hear oral arguments about an injunction, the union says Rider agreed to maintain “the status quo” through January 31, and not enter into any binding agreements to sell Westminster.

Rider, the union argues, extended that until February 9, but will not budge past that date, which does not cover the arbitration hearings.

“Although talks with the proposed buyer have apparently stalled, an injunction would prevent any final agreement of sale before the arbitration is resolved,” the union said in a public statement this week.

Rider said Wednesday the deal is alive.

“Claims that talks with the proposed buyer have apparently stalled are absolutely false,” Rider spokeswoman Kristine Brown said. 

“In fact, we continue to work diligently with our partner on a daily basis to finalize the term sheet… We are pleased with the tremendous progress we have made on a very complex process, and any information to the contrary is simply not true,” Brown said.

Brown said Friday’s hearing is “one step” in a longer process of the “goal of securing a strong future for both Westminster and Rider University.”

Meanwhile, Rider’s lawyers, in voluminous legal papers filed in opposing an injunction, said the financial straits they face are real. (The union publicly doubted the university’s financial claims last year.)

“Rider has experienced rapidly declining enrollments and has had to increasingly discount tuition in response. This has caused Rider’s total unrestricted operating revenues to decline in each of the last four years,” the legal papers say.

The university even disclosed that in 2016, their “prior commercial bank refused to renew Rider’s direct line of credit on commercially reasonable terms based on concern over its financial situation.”

“(Westminster Choir College) has been a key contributor to these financial difficulties,” the papers say.

Rider argues Westminster’s separate campus requires significant expense and it’s one-on-one instructional model and low student-to-faculty ratio, “is significantly more expensive to operate than most other types of academic programs and peer colleges.”

As a result, Westminster has tallied deficits of $4.8 million, $3.3 million and $2.6 million in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively.

Rider’s lawyers say the university has tried a sustained cost-saving effort in the past few years, “including multiple, successive years of flat staff and faculty salaries; deep cuts in employer contributions to staff and faculty pension funds; and staff layoffs and reductions in force by attrition.”

“Despite these efforts, in August 2017, Forbes Magazine ranked Rider’s financial strength and operational soundness 819th of 879 private, nonprofit colleges and universities,” a lawyer wrote.

And the union should know that, the filings say, because last summer, the union agreed to “significant economic concessions” in their contract renegotiations.

Kevin Shea may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter@kevintshea. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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