Citing what they claim are broken promises, a group of Westminster Choir College students and alumni has petitioned Rider University to either fulfill its obligations or to make the Princeton campus available to them immediately.
Rider University officials have disputed the claims leveled against it in a petition that has been signed by 130 Westminster Choir College students and alumni. Rider has ruled out moving the choir college back to the Princeton campus, on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Walnut Lane.
The Westminster Choir College was an independent conservatory music school until it became a part of Rider in 1992. The university and the choir college maintained separate campuses until Rider decided to sell the Westminster Choir College campus in 2016 for financial reasons.
Rider launched a worldwide search for a buyer who would keep the choir college in Princeton. It found a buyer in 2019, but the deal fell through.
Rider officials decided to consolidate the two campuses, and moved the Westminster Choir College to the Lawrence Township campus to coincide with the 2020-21 academic year.
Rider University had pledged to improve facilities at the Lawrence Township campus for the choir college, including an addition to the Fine Arts building and increased support for performing arts programs – choral, opera, musical theater and dance, according to the students’ petition.
The move from the Princeton campus was made with promises to build a premier Fine Arts building with more practice rooms, teaching studios, performance facilities, dance studios and offices for music faculty, the petition stated.
But none of those promises had materialized as the Fall 2021 semester drew to a close, according to the petition.
“It is imperative that Rider University address and remedy our concerns, and provide us with multiple suitable performance and practice facilities, or allow us full academic access to Westminster Choir College’s Princeton campus and its facilities that were built for – and are uniquely suited to – the college’s needs,” the petition states.
The petition cites a litany of issues, starting with acoustic deficiencies at Gill Chapel. It is the primary rehearsal and performance space, and those deficiencies make it difficult for the students to hear themselves and their music, the petition said.
There are not enough practice rooms at Gill Chapel, and the ones that exist are inadequate, the petition said. The pianos in the practice rooms are poor quality and they are not maintained. The performance Yamaha piano also has not been maintained.
There are similar issues in the Fine Arts building, the petition claims. Classrooms, which are often used for choral and ensemble rehearsals and studio classes, similarly suffer from poor acoustics.
At the Yvonne Theater, the performance space is not suited for opera performances. The performers rely on acoustics, not electronic amplification. To compensate for the poor acoustics, the students must “over-sing” or force themselves to be heard, the petition said.
Classes also have suffered, the petition said. Rehearsal schedules have been switched, and courses that emphasized concepts that apply to the students’ artistry and careers have been affected. Language courses at the choir college emphasized diction, musical phrases and the “color” of a language, but they have been dropped in favor of general world language classes.
The result has been a drop in enrollment, the petition states. Students have opted not to attend Westminster Choir College this year, or they have transferred to another school, according to the claims. A smaller student body means smaller ensembles and fewer performance opportunities.
Alumni are withdrawing support, the petition alleges. They are not recommending Westminster Choir College and they are not making financial contributions to it “because of the lack of communication and transparency” and inadequate facilities, as well as questions about the choir college’s viability because of the move, the petition said.
But Rider University officials said the university has invested considerable time and millions of dollars in the Westminster campus transition and the facilities to support it – all in a very challenging fiscal and COVID-impacted environment.
“We know transitions are hard and often require sustained work to get it right. Ensuring our facilities meet or hopefully exceed expectations is a constant focus,” said Kristine Brown, Rider University’s associate vice president for University Marketing & Communications.
Rider University President Gregory Dell’Omo wrote in a Dec. 16 response to the petition that acoustical issues at the Gill Chapel will be addressed. The university installed acoustical equipment and wanted to wait until the space was actually used before making additional modifications, he wrote.
Dell’Omo also wrote that Gill Chapel can accommodate 230 singers in rehearsal, similar to the capacity at the choir college’s Princeton facilities at the Playhouse and Hillman Hall. Once the university is able to return to pre-COVID status and unrestricted seating, the chapel can accommodate the approximately 80-student Symphonic Choir, he wrote.
Addressing the issue of the pianos, Dell’Omo wrote that they were moved from the Princeton campus to the Lawrence Township campus. Only the best pianos were moved, and both grand pianos in Gill Chapel are tuned at least once a week.
There are 36 practice rooms spread out among several buildings on the Rider University campus, he wrote. Classrooms that are not in use may also be available for practice time.
He added that acoustics in the new Fine Arts building music classrooms are superior to those at the Princeton campus.
“While the Yvonne Theater may not have been created originally for classical music performances,” Dell’Omo wrote, “opera and other classical performances occur in a wide variety of spaces, not all of which were designed for that usage.
“We will continue to evaluate this space and its usage for instruction and performance,” he wrote.
The Symphonic Choir rehearsal schedule was recommended by the faculty, he wrote. The Symphonic Choir will go back to rehearsing four days per week in the Spring 2022 semester. The schedule changes were the result of the schedules of the adjunct faculty who were hired for particular ensembles.
“We concur that additional work with scheduling is necessary,” Dell’Omo wrote.
On the declining enrollment, Dell’Omo responded that it is difficult to overestimate the effects of the pandemic in general, but specifically on areas related to the performing arts. And while some alumni have withdrawn financial support, “it is at best a generality to assume the reasons for the result,” he wrote.
Dell’Omo also made it clear in the letter that the Westminster Choir College will not return to the Princeton campus. Faculty and students, however, are free to ask for space at the Princeton campus for recitals and other special events.
Acknowledging that there have been some restrictions and limitations, Rider University officials have approved recital requests for several buildings – Bristol Chapel, Williamson Hall, the Playhouse and Hillman Hall – on the Princeton campus, he wrote.
“While there have been some challenges related to the campus move, especially during a pandemic, we believe that the establishment of Westminster Choir College on the Lawrenceville campus has provided many opportunities for improved experiences for students, faculty and staff,” Dell’Omo wrote.