By Anne Levin
Rider University’s announcement last week that 25 academic programs will be eliminated or “archived,” and an undisclosed number of faculty members will be laid off — an effort to address its $20 million deficit — is the latest blow for Westminster Choir College, which has been affiliated with Rider since 1992.
Among the undergraduate programs on the list are Theory/Composition, Organ Performance, and Sacred Music; graduate programs include American and Public Musicology, Piano Pedagogy and Performance, Piano Performance, and Organ Performance. “All that remains of WCC is really Voice Performance and Music Education,” wrote one alumnus on Facebook. “Rider really destroyed our school.”
Rider President Gregory Dell’Omo emailed the university community June 7 the plan, which affects 25 academic programs. Along with the courses at Westminster, which was moved from its longtime Princeton campus to Rider’s Lawrence Township location in 2020, the list includes undergraduate majors in Economics, Global Studies, and Health Care Policy. Graduate programs include Homeland Security and Business Communication. The email also said Rider will be increasing its investment in seven programs in an effort to help them grow. All current students whose programs are being eliminated or archived “will have a path toward graduation,” the email said.
The cost savings will ease the deficit and position Rider so it can “begin to consistently generate annual net revenue reserves that can be invested back into the university’s future,” Dell’Omo said.
Members of Rider’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) were quick to condemn the administration’s announcement, issuing a statement saying the mention of layoffs violates the existing labor contract, and the unilateral restructuring “violates Rider’s system of shared governance and replaces it with top-down decision making.” The AAUP renewed its call to remove Dell’Omo “for his financial mismanagement of the university.”
In 2016, Dell’Omo announced plans to seek a buyer for Westminster that would keep the choir college in Princeton. But after a $40 million deal to sell the choir college to a for-profit company based in China fell through, Rider opted to move Westminster to Rider’s Lawrence Township campus. The fate of the Princeton campus remains in question. Oral arguments for two lawsuits disputing Rider’s right to have moved Westminster from Princeton were heard last month before Superior Court appellate judges in Trenton.
Rider’s financial woes caused analysts at Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade its bond rating last year from Ba1 to Ba2, indicating to potential investors that investing in the school is risky because the university may be unable to pay back its debts. In his email to the campus community, Dell’Omo cited COVID-19 and changing attitudes toward higher education for the economic situation.
“Despite Rider’s ongoing strategic investments in new program development, facilities, brand positioning, and academic and career success, the University recognized a need for a new strategy to overcome these discouraging trends,” reads the institutional transformation plan summary. “Given the scope of these challenges, Rider chose to work with Credo, a national higher education consulting firm that has worked with more than 400 institutions like Rider since its inception in 1995, to assist in gathering and analyzing data, making recommendations, and driving change.”
Jeffrey Halpern, a sociology professor at Rider and chief grievance officer for the AAUP chapter, said Monday that the school’s financial issues are due to mismanagement more than COVID-19 and other issues cited by Dell’Omo. “All of our competitors have the same COVID issue, but they are dealing with the situation,” he said. “Similar institutions seem to be doing well.”
Dell’Omo has also blamed labor costs for contributing to the deficit. “This is really a red herring,” Halpern said. “Labor costs have declined dramatically over the last five to six years, down $8 million a year. Part of their claim is that the union refused all of the cost savings proposed five years ago in the last contract, and it’s simply untrue. We took wage freezes and reductions in benefits, and that’s the reality. We’ve done cost cutting, yet it still seems to be blamed on us. The one thing that’s never said by them is that they’ve made mistakes.”
Halpern called the situation at Westminster, which has watched its enrollment shrink over the past five years, a fiasco. “You cannot speak to anybody familiar with choral music that didn’t rank Westminster in the top tier for choral education,” he said. “It had healthy enrollments, dorm rooms filled, and now it’s a shell of what it was. Dell’Omo clearly had the notion of doing a land sale when he came on [in 2015]. It has cost millions in consulting, legal fees, and all of that. I don’t believe he was ever interested in the fact that this was a world-class music program.”
Rider has to go through a formal process before layoffs can take place. “We’re trying to determine if there are any actions that have actually been taken, in which case we’ll file a grievance,” Halpern said.
Starting July 1, Rider will merge the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with Westminster College of the Arts. The new entity will consist of the choir college; the School of Communication Media and Performing arts; the School of Humanities and Social Sciences; and the School of Science, Technology and Mathematics.
As for Westminster Conservatory of Music, which provides music lessons to all students of all ages, it “will move under Auxiliary Services as Rider seeks to stem a $300,000 annual revenue loss resulting from the Conservatory’s current operational structure,” the email said.
In his message to the community, Dell’Omo said, “Today’s announcement is about embracing our future, and preparing for it. For as much as Rider has accomplished over the past 157 years, I believe even more is possible. But to succeed, we must stay as focused as ever on meeting the changing needs of students.”