Commencement the latest Westminster tradition to be sacrificed

By Shaun Chornobroff

Every year at the Westminster Choir College (WCC) commencement the “Anthem of Dedication” is performed as a sending off to those graduating.

The underclassmen of the college sing the words, “whom shall we send and who will go for us.”

The graduating class responds “here I am Lord, send me.”

Historically, the dedication and the commencement is a monumental event that packs the Princeton University Chapel with current students and their families, alumni and faculty past and present.

However, the WCC commencement is the latest Westminster tradition headed toward extinction since the school moved from its Princeton campus to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus. The class of 2022 will be the final class experiencing a traditional Westminster commencement in Princeton, Rider’s Associate Vice President for University Marketing and Communications Kristine Brown told The Rider News.

“When we first transitioned Westminster Choir College from Princeton to Lawrenceville, the intent was to have a WCC-only commencement at the Princeton University Chapel through 2023, and after that, WCC students would then participate in the Rider University commencement ceremonies. However, it recently has been determined that this year’s WCC commencement will be the last separate commencement,” Brown said in an email.

Brown said there are many factors contributing to the decision not to have a WCC commencement in 2023, including cost. She also explained that discussions on how to incorporate Westminster traditions into Rider have already begun. She said the administration wants to “not only honor the many WCC traditions but find ways in which all Rider students can learn and appreciate those traditions.”

Joel Phillips, a professor at Westminster for more than 30 years said the decision to end WCC’s commencement is “another attempt by this administration to eradicate something valuable and irreplaceable.”

Andrew Bernstein, the Student Government Association (SGA) president for the 2022-23 school year said he will continue to fight for the Westminster students and wants to ensure they are represented.

“We have had conversations with President [Gregory] Dell’Omo, Provost [DonnaJean] Fredeen and Dean [Marshall] Onofrio about the future of Westminster commencement. I can assure you SGA will continue to advocate for unique Westminster commencement traditions … to continue,” Bernstein said in an email to The Rider News. “During conversations with the administration, one of the important acknowledgments has been the need to adjust commencement to account for Westminster traditions.”

Jason Vodicka ’03 was named the assistant dean of Rider’s new College of Arts and Sciences which is planned to launch in July and include WCC. Vodicka said he would support an event similar to a separate event for Westminster students.

“What I would say is that, as a current faculty member, as an alumnus and as a future associate dean, that I would advocate for being able to continue the tradition of the Westminster commencement within the guidelines that are provided by the university,” Vodicka said. “For me, I think the most important things are … having a chance for our community to gather together with alumni, with current students, with graduates, with the families of the graduates to meet. That’s the most important part of the event.”

Despite being a senior, music theory and composition major Charles Ibsen has only been able to participate in one traditional WCC commencement. COVID-19 sent the nation into a whirlwind in 2020 and canceled graduations across the country.

The following year, WCC graduated the 2021 class on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus. Due to COVID-19 still being increasingly prevalent, students had to wear masks, and instead of singing the “Anthem of Dedication,” someone read the text on stage, and instead of singing, the students of the choir college were forced to speak the piece they had been waiting four years to sing.

“You can imagine just how much that takes the soul out of a piece, to just kind of read it like poetry. I mean, it’s a choir college for crying out loud,” Ibsen said. “It has felt like something is definitely missing and I think that it kind of hurts too, especially if they’re not hoping to continue having commencements in Princeton that my class and maybe even the class below me are the last folk that remember what that is supposed to be like. Remember what is missing.”

Ibsen said the commencement is “the release of four years of anticipation and growth and community.” Without the event, the Westminster experience doesn’t conclude the way it’s meant to in Ibsen’s eyes.

“Westminster students and alums and stuff, we kind of almost obsess over, where is the point in which Westminster as a school kind of dies,” Ibsen said sadly. “… If enough of commencement changes that it’s not a Westminster event anymore, but a Rider event, then Westminster is dead … It’s not a Westminster education through and through if you don’t get to send yourself off into the world with that experience.”

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