Rider University and Westminster Choir College appeal set for Appellate Division

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The state Appellate Division of Superior Court will hear oral arguments next month in an appeal challenging the dismissal of two lawsuits that sought to block Rider University from moving the Westminster Choir College from Princeton to its Lawrence Township campus.

Attorneys for Rider University and the Westminster Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey, Inc., and a group of Westminster Choir College students will square off before the Appellate Division judges in Trenton on May 16.

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A decision by the panel of Appellate Division judges may take one to six months.

The appeal stems from the March 2, 2020, ruling by Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy in favor of Rider University’s motion to dismiss the two lawsuits that challenged the plan to move the choir college from its Princeton campus to the university’s Lawrence Township campus.

Rider University completed its move of the Westminster Choir College from its Walnut Lane campus in Princeton to the university’s Lawrence campus in time for the 2020-21 academic year.

The students and the Westminster Foundation – which is not affiliated with Westminster Choir College or Rider University – opposed the move because they claimed that Rider University would 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.

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

The students are beneficiaries of a 1935 trust that purchased the land for the Westminster Choir College and that requires it to remain on the property. The trust was created by Sophia Strong Taylor, who gave the land to the choir college when it moved from Ithaca, New York.

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 seminary trains Presbyterian ministers.

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. The university would have to use the money “for the exclusive purposes or programs of Westminster,” the lawsuit said.

Rider University acquired Westminster Choir College through a merger in 1992. Rider decided in 2016 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. The deal fell through in 2019, and that’s when Rider University announced plans to consolidate and move the choir college to Lawrence Township.

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