Ruling on Westminster Choir College lawsuits expected in coming weeks

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Westminster Choir College

A Mercer County Superior Court judge’s ruling on Rider University’s motion to dismiss two lawsuits that would block it from moving the Westminster Choir College to its Lawrence Township campus is expected to be issued in the next few weeks.

Attorneys for Rider University and for two groups who filed lawsuits to block the move spent nearly three hours in court before Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy on Feb. 14, said attorney Bruce Afran.

“Judge Lougy said he would issue a written opinion, most likely in then next two or three weeks, I would expect,” Afran said.

Afran represents the Westminster Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey, Inc., and a group of 71 Westminster Choir College students, which have each filed lawsuits challenging Rider University’s planned move.

The Westminster Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey, Inc. is an independent nonprofit group. It was formed in opposition to the plan to relocate the Westminster Choir College from the college’s Princeton campus to the Lawrence Township campus. It is not affiliated with Rider University or the choir college.

The students and the Westminster Foundation oppose the move because they claim that Rider University will be unable to match the facilities on the Princeton campus. Those facilities range from 46 specialized practice rooms to space for 20 pipe organs and 165 pianos.

Rider University officials are planning to renovate Gill Chapel to create 13 new practice rooms and to add six new practice rooms in Kroner Hall dormitory. Combined with the 14 practice rooms at the Lawrence Township campus, 33 practice rooms are expected to be available later this year.

Through its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Rider University claims that the students do not have the right to use the courts to protect the school, Afran said. The university has asserted that it is the only body that can decisions regarding Westminster Choir College.

The students are beneficiaries of a 1935 trust that purchased the land for the choir college and that requires it to remain on the property. If the choir college abandons the campus, the trust requires the land to go to the Princeton Theological Seminary, according to an advisory report prepared by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General.

The students’ lawsuit seeks to bar the sale of the 23-acre Princeton campus, either in part or in whole. But if a sale does occur, the lawsuit would prevent Rider University from pocketing the money for its own use. Rider would have to use the money “for the exclusive purposes or programs of Westminster,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuits stem from Rider University’s announcement that it plans to move the Westminster Choir College from the Princeton campus to its Lawrence Township campus in September 2020. The Princeton campus is on the corner of Walnut Lane and Hamilton Avenue.

Rider University acquired Westminster Choir College through a merger in 1992. Four years ago, Rider decided to sell the college for financial reasons. It launched a worldwide search for a buyer who would keep the choir college in Princeton.

Rider University found a buyer in a commercial, Chinese government-owned entity known as Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology, Ltd., but the deal fell through in July 2019.

Following the failed deal, Rider University announced plans to consolidate and move Westminster Choir College to its Lawrence Township campus, despite the lack of specialized facilities that the conservatory music students require.

The students’ lawsuit claims that under the 1991 agreement that led to the 1992 merger, Rider cannot move the choir college unless it can show that such a move or change is necessary to preserve the charitable purposes of Westminster Choir College.

Also under the 1991 agreement, Rider cannot relocate the choir college unless it can demonstrate “that the move to the Lawrence campus will preserve such program and mission in the closest means possible to the existing mission, campus and operation of Westminster,” according to the lawsuit.

“Rider also has assumed such obligations under the 1935 Strong Taylor trust,” the lawsuit said.

The Strong Taylor trust was created by Sophia Strong Taylor, who gave 23 acres of land in Princeton when the Westminster Choir College moved from Ithaca, N.Y. The college had been affiliated with Ithaca College.

As a condition of her gift, Strong Taylor required that the choir college must advance “the training of ministers of music of evangelical churches.”

If Westminster Choir College ceased to do so, the land was to be given to the Princeton Theological Seminary, which is a private theological seminary that trains Presbyterian ministers.

Westminster Choir College was formed as the Westminster Choir of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, in 1920.