The dismissal of two lawsuits that sought to block Rider University’s plan to move the Westminster Choir College from Princeton to its Lawrence Township campus is headed to the Appellate Division of Superior Court.
A notice of appeal was filed April 14 by attorney Bruce Afran, following a Mercer County Superior Court judge’s dismissal of the lawsuits brought by 71 Westminster Choir College students and the Westminster Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey Inc.
The Westminster Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey Inc. is an independent nonprofit group whose members include alumni and supporters of the choir college. It is not affiliated with Rider University or the Westminster Choir College.
Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy dismissed the lawsuits after listening to oral arguments at the Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton on Feb. 14. The judge issued his ruling in an order dated March 2.
Rider University is aware of the appeal filing, but it does not comment on pending litigation, said Rider University spokesman Kristine Brown. Progress is being made, however, on construction projects in anticipation of the planned move, she said.
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 include 46 specialized practice rooms and space for 20 pipe organs and 165 pianos.
Rider University is renovating Gill Chapel to create 13 new practice rooms and is adding six new practice rooms in the 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 lawsuits, Rider University claimed that the students do not have the right to use the courts to protect the school. The university had asserted that it was the only body that could make 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.
The lawsuits seek to bar the sale of the 23-acre Princeton campus, either in part or in whole. But if a sale does occur, the lawsuits 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 Choir College.
The lawsuits stem from Rider University’s announcement that it planned 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, near Princeton High School.
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 claimed that under the 1991 agreement that led to the 1992 merger, Rider University 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 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, New York. 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 seminary that trains Presbyterian ministers.
Westminster Choir College was formed as the Westminster Choir of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio in 1920.