Albert Einstein, describing how he came up with his ideas, said: “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”
For 100 years, Westminster Choir College has contributed this “musical perception” to the world. From its humble birth in the new Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, by Dr. John Finley Williamson in 1920 it rose to national and international fame. By 1926 it was performing in the White House and by 1934, with the help of a few donors, the Princeton Theological Seminary, and Dr. John Hibben, the retired president of Princeton University, it moved to Princeton, under its new name Westminster Choir College (WCC).
From then on, year after year, the choir has been in demand by the largest and best orchestras in the world. Today the WCC Symphonic Choir is among the best in the world. A member of that choir, when asked what makes it great, said, “WCC has an atmosphere that propels their singers’ ability and performance, an atmosphere that cannot be created in any other college.”
All this is about to change. WCC is dying because Rider University needs money and decided to move WCC to Lawrence so it could sell WCC’s empty 23-acre campus to anyone who will meet their price.
How we got here
In 1992 WCC ran into financial problems. WCC’s board decided to merge with Rider and become one of Rider’s colleges. Rider agreed to leave WCC in Princeton as an independent entity to manage itself. The financial crisis ended after a few years, but the agreement was not changed.
In 2016, while WCC was actually profitable, Rider was facing financial difficulties. Rider decided to cash in on the jewel of Princeton and sell it. The university was not interested in moving WCC into its music school; it wanted to cash in on WCC’s good name.
Alas, no U.S. college was willing to buy WCC. Rider then found a Chinese commercial company that was willing to pay $40 million. After two years of talks and waiting for the lawsuits against Rider to settle, the Chinese gave up and cancelled the agreement.
With no buyers for WCC, Rider decided to move the faculty and students of WCC to Lawrence and sell the 23-acre WCC campus as a real estate deal. That left only three types of buyers:
1. Builders, after the lawsuits settle.
2. The Princeton Public School System, which will need to increase the town’s real estate taxes if it decides to buy the 23 acres of land.
3. The Town of Princeton, which would like to increase the real estate tax base.
What happens to WCC?
Rider could not care less what happens to WCC after the move to Lawrenceville. If it shrinks in size the school will have to spend much less money on relocating WCC and providing new facilities. WCC has 150 acoustically designed teaching rooms; Rider has none and said it will build 16 new rooms.
Since the talks between Rider and the Chinese started WCC’s new enrollment is down by 60 percent, and the total number of students is down by 40 percent. If this continues the choirs will be decimated; there will be no one to replace be any departing seniors after graduation.
Westminster Choir College will die. Rider does not care; all it wants is money. To Rider, WCC is a commodity.
Rider does not care if it destroys the special atmosphere that exists on the WCC campus, a spirit that benefits the entire musical world.
Rider does not care if the people of Princeton will lose the ability to take their children from an early age to be immersed in musical education that will help them to be more productive in later years.
Rider does not care that several of WCC’s renowned voice professors have already left the college; the university will not have to fire them as class sizes shrink.
What can be done to save WCC from this ill-conceived grab for money and make Rider understand that it will be stuck with an empty and costly campus for many years until the courts will settle the active lawsuits against the school? Until the lawsuits are resolved, no one can buy and get title to the WCC property.
The Princeton community must become proactive and do the following:
1. Write letters to all local papers about the need and your support for keeping WCC in Princeton.
2. Write, email, or call the mayor of Princeton, the members of the town council, and all members of the Princeton Board of Education and ask them to declare in clear words that they have no interest in buying the empty WCC campus and publicly support retaining WCC in our town.
3. Contact the governor of New Jersey and the state representatives for Princeton and Mercer County and ask them to support retaining WCC in Princeton.
How can this Gordian Knot be resolved? The following is one plan that requires all parties involved to think outside the box and understand that they need to sit together and negotiate a final outcome that will benefit all parties.
The plan requires the participant to take the following steps:
1. Raise $15 to $20 million to buy its freedom from Rider.
2. Sell 8 acres of its property facing Franklin Avenue and John Witherspoon Middle School to the Town of Princeton for $8 million.
1. Disassociate itself from WCC, transfer ownership to WCC, and collect a payment of $15 to $20 million. The payment will come from either WCC or the Town of Princeton.
Town of Princeton
1. Issue a $20 million 10-year straight bond (both interest rate and principal repayment do not change from year to year). The money will be used as a backup to pay Rider for the WCC property if its fundraising falls short.
2. Agree to buy 8 acres of land from WCC for $8 million.
3. Close the section of Franklin Avenue facing the WCC property and add it to the 8 acres bought in 2. above.
4. Swap the above 8-plus acres with the Board of Education for the Valley Road/Witherspoon school property and provide a parking area for the school buses.
5. Sell the Monument Hall-area property to a hotel builder and use the proceeds to clear the Valley Road property and build an extension to the Witherspoon Municipal building to house all town employees currently working in the Monument building and also provide space for the Senior Center and TV30 currently residing at the Monument property.
Board of Education
1. Agree to swap the Valley Road property for the 8-plus acres on Franklin Avenue.
2. Prepare to issue a bond to cover its cost to build a new administration building.
The above plan is not cast in concrete, it can be changed and improved, but it is a start and people of good will can make it work.
It can be done, and it will be a win-win situation for Rider, WCC, and all the people of Princeton.
Ralph Perry is a retired financial engineer who worked for Western Electric Research Lab on Carter Road.