By RACHEL KATZ • AUG 17, 2017
Westminster Choir College may be one step closer to having a new owner, as Rider University announced it is set to begin negotiations with an interested “international partner” in its effort to sell the renowned choral institution.
“After reviewing proposals over the last several weeks, the Board will now begin negotiations and due diligence with the selected potential partner,” Rider said Thursday in a statement, adding that the process had begun with outreach to about 280 groups that might have an interest in acquiring the college or its campus in Princeton. Rider declined to provide additional details on the Board of Trustee’s selection of the finalist, saying it would seek to keep the negotiations confidential.
Rider’s Board voted in March to begin a search for a buyer for the choir college that has called Princeton its home since 1932, backing off initial plans to merge the college’s program with Rider’s main Lawrenceville campus and sell the 23-acre campus in an effort to stem Rider’s financial losses. Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo has said the university’s priority is to find a buyer that will keep Westminster’s programs and campus intact, but that it will consider selling the college and the land to separate buyers if it cannot find a single institution willing to purchase both.
The most recent announcement was met with caution from Westminster supporters, who said it was still too early in the process to determine whether this would be a good move forward for the school.
“It’s not a done deal yet,” said Mona Davids, the parent of a Westminster student and part of a group of plaintiffs who have filed suit in U.S. District Court in New York City against Rider to block any sale that would lead to its closure. “They’re only going to start the negotiations now.”
A court conference date has been set for September 1. The group has argued that a sale would potentially violate some of the agreements Rider made when it first bought Westminster.
“If they have found a way to satisfy their own needs and keep Westminster as a college of music education, we may all be able to move forward,” said attorney Bruce Afran, who filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. Any potential buyer that is a commercial or otherwise for-profit entity would have to ensure that Westminster is operated by an independent board in order to retain its current level of accreditation, he added.
The Westminster Choir was founded in Dayton, Ohio in 1920 by John Finley Williamson, who then created a choir school in 1926. The choir college was established in 1929 and, after first moving to Ithaca College, Westminster relocated to its current home near downtown Princeton in 1932. The Westminster Symphonic Choir has sung with internationally acclaimed orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, performing under the baton of great conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Robert Shaw and Leopold Stokowski.
Financial difficulties of its own prompted Westminster to seek a new owner in the early 1990s, and it merged with Rider in 1992. In addition to the choir college, which is part of Rider’s Westminster College of the Arts, Westminster also operates the Westminster Conservatory, which provides community music programs including private music lessons, group lessons for children, and the Westminster Community Orchestra.
Earlier in the week, the Princeton music community was stunned by the closure of the American Boychoir School, which had struggled to recover after emerging from bankruptcy protection last year. In an interview, conducted prior to Rider’s most recent announcement, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert called the loss of the American Boychoir “very sad news,” adding that both the Boychoir and Westminster were important parts of the region’s cultural landscape.
“It’s a difficult time for the arts, and I think we have to look inside and think about the investment we make in these organizations,” she said. “They are expensive to run, but there is also a huge cost to not having them.”
The Princeton Public Schools had also made an offer for the Westminster property in an effort to expand to accommodate its growing school population.
(Note: By way of full disclosure, WWFM has agreements with Westminster to broadcast several of its concerts, and A Tempo host Rachel Katz is a member of the Westminster Community Orchestra.)