MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A small American music college is up for sale, and its buyer is likely to be a Chinese for-profit company that is partly owned by the Chinese government. Now, the prospect that an American college could be controlled by a foreign totalitarian government is raising red flags on campus and here in Washington. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has details.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Westminster Choir College specializes in training singers and other music professionals. One of its graduates is the current music director of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera.
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TSIOULCAS: The college has sent graduates everywhere from Carnegie Hall to "American Idol." But it's struggled to balance its books as an independent school, so in the early 1990s, it became part of nearby Rider University. The merger worked well for nearly 30 years. But Rider now says it's time to sell Westminster off. Rider University's president, Greg Dell'Omo, says it's been hard to find buyers.
GREG DELL'OMO: Unfortunately there was not one U.S. university that was willing to put a proposal together to meet all of our guiding principles, primarily being - operating in Princeton as Westminster Choir College.
TSIOULCAS: But they did find a willing buyer in China, a company called Kaiwen Education. Kaiwen offered Rider a $56 million package for Westminster. While it has the money, it lacks something else, says Joel Phillips, a professor of composition and theory at Westminster.
JOEL PHILLIPS: It has no higher ed experience. It has no experience in the highly specialized world of professional music.
TSIOULCAS: In fact, until December of last year, education wasn't even Kaiwen's business. Under a different name, it made steel bridge parts. Today it runs two private K-12 schools in Beijing, and it's partly owned by Beijing's municipal government, says Bruce Afran. He's the lawyer for one of two groups of plaintiffs who have filed suits to stop the sale.
BRUCE AFRAN: You know, it's amazing what you can find on the Internet when it's not censored. We simply went into the Kaiwen Education website, and we see that the school Kaiwen Academy is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of Badachu Holdings Group. Then when we go to the webpage of Badachu, it says it's a wholly state-owned company owned by the government of China.
TSIOULCAS: Afran and his clients worry about the potential impact of the sale on the school's academic freedom. Rider University declined requests for a second interview with President Greg Dell'Omo after Kaiwen's ownership became known, and Kaiwen did not respond to NPR's repeated requests for interview or comment made over several months.
Larry Livingston is interim president of the Westminster Choir College Acquisition Corporation, which has been set up to manage the sale. Livingston acknowledges that the Beijing municipal government is a part owner of Kaiwen - about 16 percent, he says. But he waves off worries about possible interference from the Chinese government.
LARRY LIVINGSTON: The future operation of the independent, nonprofit Westminster Choir College will continue to be subject to U.S. laws and regulations as it is today.
TSIOULCAS: There are some Westminster faculty members who support the Kaiwen deal, like piano professor Ingrid Clarfield. She says she's taught Chinese students for more than 30 years.
INGRID CLARFIELD: So I have a strong history and tradition with Chinese education and their high respect for music education and the teacher being revered. So when I found out we were being bought by a Chinese company, I was thrilled.
TSIOULCAS: Nevertheless, there are still those two lawsuits currently making their way through U.S. courts. One of the plaintiffs is Constance Fee. She's a professor at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y., and president of a nonprofit called the Westminster Foundation. Not only does her group oppose Kaiwen's purchase, it's been trying to raise the money to buy the college. But Fee worries that the foundation faces an unbeatable opponent.
CONSTANCE FEE: If they're funded now by the Chinese government, there's no end to the money. They can wait this out. They can just keep pouring money into it.
TSIOULCAS: While the legal battles drag on, enrollment at Westminster has plummeted. Nevertheless, the administration is forging ahead with its plans. Last month, about 40 Westminster students toured Beijing. Their trip was paid for and overseen by the Kaiwen company. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we say that Kaiwen had not been in the education business until last December. In fact, the company opened Beijing Kaiwen Academy in 2016.]
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