PRINCETON: Westminster Choir College faculty union blasts notice of layoffs (Updated)

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Elizabeth Scheiber

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Rider University President Gregory G. Dell’Omo left the door open this week that his administration might not be able to finalize a “potential” transaction to sell Westminster Choir College, where 33 full-time faculty members got layoff notices on Tuesday.
In a message Tuesday to the university community, Dell’ Omo wrote that the undisclosed “potential partner” intends to keep operating Westminster as a music school in Princeton and, “at this time,” wants to keep the faculty and staff. Little has been disclosed about the partner, except that it is an Asian-based operator of k-12 schools but has no experience in higher education.
The two sides have been negotiating. Dell’Omo said in his letter that there is a “possibility” that a deal is “reached and finalized” by the end of the current academic year.
“However, in the event a transaction is not consummated, it may be necessary to transition to closure and provide an opportunity for teach-out of current WCC students,” he wrote. “This process would decrease the size of the student body and thus create the need to concurrently reduce the size of the workforce.”
Of the layoff notices, he stressed that no one was being “fired or laid off as of (Tuesday).”
“Rather, our community should understand that the notice was provided as part of a larger process intended to secure the future of WCC,” he wrote.
He also said, “While we do not believe that the potential WCC transaction triggers the (collective bargaining agreement) layoff notice provisions, we provided a layoff notice to WCC full-time faculty earlier (Tuesday) in case it is required and in an effort to share important information about the process with our community.”
For its part, the faculty union said in response that it intended to file a grievance. Elizabeth Scheiber, president of the Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said Wednesday that her union’s contract with Rider says the university only can justify laying off full-time, tenured faculty in cases of “financial exigency.”
“So the union is questioning the financial exigency issue of these layoffs,” she said in a matter that would go before an arbitrator.
Constance Fee, president of Coalition to Save WCC in Princeton, Inc., said the lay-off notices were a scare tactic, intended to influence the faculty, the AAUP, and the coalition to back off and go along with the deal they are proposing.
“With no information about the potential partner forthcoming, no assurance that the college will remain on its campus long term, and no voice in the negotiations, we are fully committed to keeping our lawsuit in place and doing whatever is necessary to protect Westminster’s future,” said Fee. “We find it interesting that this is the first time that closure of the school is being mentioned as a possible option, should the potential deal not be consummated. We were under the impression that Rider would stand by Westminster until a suitable partner was found. Will this option be shared with the Parents of Enrolled Westminster Students organization at their meeting with administration next week?”
On Thursday, university officials were on campus speaking in separate meetings with students in the morning and with faculty in the afternoon.
But the faculty union had a press conference Thursday afternoon at the Choir College where it rebutted some of the narratives the union says the administration is distributing.
Jeffrey Halpern, a Rider professor of sociology and contract administrator for the union, said the university talks of having deficits in the $10 million to $14 million range, but that its latest financial statement showed positive cash flow and net assets that increased by $5.5 million.
“This does not justify taking the type of drastic actions that they have proposed,” said Halpern. “We believe this has to do not with what they need to do, but what this president wants to do, which is to divest himself of a world-class program so he can invest more money on the other campus.”
Rider trustees decided to part ways with Westminster after 25 years. Westminster faculty has complained that professors are being kept in the dark, however.
“I repeat,” Dell’Omo said, “that our goal remains to transition Westminster Choir College to a new organization, and we believe we have found an entity that is committed to making the necessary investments in the institution to take WCC and its legacy to a stronger future.”