Chinese companies are taking advantage of America’s financially strapped higher-education system to buy schools, and the latest deal for a classical music conservatory in Princeton, New Jersey, is striking chords of dissonance on campus.
Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Co. agreed in February to pay $40 million for Westminster Choir College, an affiliate of Rider University that trains students for careers as singers, conductors and music teachers. The announcement came just weeks after the government-controlled Chinese company changed its name from Jiangsu Zhongtai Bridge Steel Structure Co.
The pending purchase rankles some Westminster faculty and alumni, who question what a longtime maker of steel spans knows about running an elite school whose choirs sang with maestros Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini and Seiji Ozawa. Alumni are among those suing in New York federal court to block the sale, saying it violates Westminster’s 1991 merger agreement with Rider and will trigger the choir college’s demise.
“There’s a lot of fear among people associated with the college,” said Chris Bonanni, 20, an undergraduate student.
Rider, based in nearby Lawrenceville, said the 98-year-old music college lost $10.7 million since fiscal year 2015. Rider suffered a blow in November when Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its outlook from stable to negative. Beijing Kaiwen made the best proposal to keep Westminster operating as a choir college in Princeton, Rider said in a statement.
Xu Guangyu, chairman of Beijing Kaiwen and a choral singer in college, said the two institutions can operate in harmony. He runs K-12 schools in China and said Westminster could provide the knowledge to help upgrade arts education for his students. Xu said he won’t cut Westminster’s budget or staff.
Westminster’s programs include master’s degrees in choral conducting, sacred music and organ performance, and notable alumni include Dorothy Maynor, founder of the Harlem School of the Arts, and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, incoming music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“They can set up our entire music curriculum and bring all kinds of exchange opportunities,” Xu said. “It’s pretty difficult to find these musical resources.”
The deal comes at a good time to hunt for bargains at U.S. colleges after S&P Global Ratings put the sector on a negative outlook in January. Sixty-six post-secondary schools shuttered in 2015-2016, according to the Washington-based National Center for Education Statistics, which started compiling data in 1969-1970.