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Chinese Company Backs Out Of Controversial Choir College Purchase

Students of the Westminster Choir College, performing with the Vienna Philharmonic at New York's Carnegie Hall in 2015.
Hiroyuki Ito
Getty Images
Students of the Westminster Choir College, performing with the Vienna Philharmonic at New York's Carnegie Hall in 2015.

July 1, 2019 was supposed to be the day that the prestigious music school Westminster Choir College [WCC], in Princeton, N.J., was sold to a for-profit company that is based in Beijing and partly owned by the Chinese government.

Instead, that company, Kaiwen Education, and Rider University, which folded WCC into its holdings in the 1990s, announced on Monday that they had "mutually agreed" that the sale would not go forward. Instead, Rider, which is located in the nearby town of Lawrenceville, says that its board has approved a plan to move the college's programs to its own campus.

The planned sale to Kaiwen was controversial from the start, and spurred two lawsuits in New Jersey Superior Court that sought to block the Kaiwen's purchase, as well as an investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General's office. One of the suits was filed by a group of alumni and donors; the other was filed by Princeton Theological Seminary. (Sophia Strong Taylor, who donated the Princeton campus to WCC in the 1930s, stipulated that if WCC ever ceased in its mission, which includes training future music ministers for Christian churches, that the property would revert to the seminary.)

Kaiwen's termination of the deal to buy WCC was voted on unanimously by its board of directors on June 28.

In late March, the New Jersey Attorney General's office filed an opinion with Superior Court Judge Paul Innes, who is presiding over both lawsuits against Rider; it said that according to the stipulations created by Sophia Strong Taylor, WCC's campus must continue to be used for its mission, or be transferred to the seminary. The opinion also questioned whether or not the proposed sale to Kaiwen was made "solely for the benefit of Westminster, including its current and future students and its faculty, or whether there was any element of self-interest [for Rider] inherent in the proposed transaction."

In its own press release released on Monday, Rider announced that its board has voted to move WCC to its own campus beginning in September 2020, despite the conditions of the Taylor donation and the attorney general's opinion. It quotes Rider board chairman Robert S. Schimek as saying, in part: "It is our continuing responsibility to enact a plan that serves the best interests of the entire university. It is not financially feasible to allow Westminster to continue on its present course as a separate, fully operational campus seven miles apart from Rider's Lawrenceville campus."

Rider also said in its press release that it intends to "explore the possibility of retaining a footprint on the Princeton campus — dedicated in part to the activities of the conservatory, with possible academic and artistic opportunities for students." Requests for comment from Rider and its president, Greg Dell'Omo, were not returned.

Jeffrey Halpern, a Rider professor and the chief grievance officer for the university's American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter, provided a statement to NPR. "I am gratified by today's announcement by Rider University President Gregory Dell'Omo that the attempt to sell Westminster Choir College to a for-profit company has ended and all of the faculty layoff notices have been rescinded," says Halpern, confirming that the layoff notices issued to Westminster faculty in 2017 have all been canceled, "but I am concerned that the plan to move the Westminster programs to the Lawrenceville campus by fall 2020, given that the Lawrenceville campus lacks the specialized facilities that the Westminster programs require, may entail the effective destruction of those programs."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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