Capital Region residents were surprised last month by the disclosure that officials of the Dickinson School of Law, which merged with the Pennsylvania State University in 1997, were considering moving the institution to Penn State's main campus at University Park. Law School Dean Phillip McConnaughay discussed the proposal recently with The Patriot-News Editorial Board. Following are some of the highlights of that discussion. Q: Could you give us a little background on how you got to the point of discussing a potential move?
Let me begin by talking about the past of Dickinson, because I believe that's as much a part of my view of the future as anything. We're 170 years old. I think that a lot of our alumni like to point with pride to the fact that we were 21 years old when Penn State was founded. The graduates we have are really extraordinary: three or four governors; several U.S. senators; many members of the current federal bench in Pennsylvania; Tom Ridge; Lisa Hook, senior officer of AOL Broadband; Louis Katz, owner of the New Jersey Nets; Sylvia Rambo, first chief women judge here. It's an extraordinary history.
I think that occurred for a reason, and that's because for about the first 160 years of our history the Dickinson School of Law was the first-choice law school of top regional students. Dickinson School of Law regularly would, from the top to bottom of its class, place in about the top third of students nationally. And these students were largely drawn from our back yard. They were central Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly. We were the first choice school of very fine students.
In 1990, the Dickinson School of Law had more than 2,000 applicants, and it offered admission to fewer than 25 percent. In 1991, U.S. News and World Report published its first issue of national rankings of law schools. Six issues later, by 1997, Dickinson had barely 1,000 applicants and had offered admission to over 60 percent of them. Students started to look outside of their local vicinity for law schools.
Q: How did that happen? What made the magazine's rankings so important?
I think that they introduced about 186 law schools that maybe previously weren't known to regional students, in a concentrated fashion. I think they focused the attention of prospective students on what the competition was nationally. And I think students started to look broadly at law schools.
I practiced law for over 18 years for a large San Francisco law firm. And I had an interesting practice. I was abroad 10 years, I lived in Tokyo and Hong Kong, and in practice what I found is that the problems you confront and the problems that you have to address draw on multiple disciplines for a solution. You don't just bring law to bear on a particular problem as a lawyer; you bring all sorts of reasoning and all sorts of other people and all sorts of expertise that resides in other people to bear on a particular problem.
I came to the University of Illinois [as a law professor] in 1996. What I found to be most rich about my activities there were that they had mainly to do with other units on campus. The first thing I did was organize a major conference with a renowned historian, one of the leading historians of Africa and African economic history. We put on a symposium dealing with human rights and developments in Africa. I invited law students; he invited history students; we invited professors from throughout the university... It replicated what I had experienced in practice, and I found it incredibly rich, and I think they did too, as a way to draw upon the intellectual researches of the rest of the university, to deliver to law students the subject matter that they are going to confront as lawyers.
So I came to the Dickinson School of Law -- basically the attraction for me was the merger with Penn State. I thought this was going to be a very interesting enterprise because we have a stand- alone independent law school, almost with an unparalleled history of turning out wonderfully accomplished graduates and community leaders, leaders of the bar, leaders of the judiciary, merging with one of the elite universities in the United States in research.
Since arriving, we have, I think, achieved a lot right where we are. Our diversity has increased dramatically from sub-10 percent to 21 percent, the highest in our history. Our applicant pool last year was the highest in our history, and that was a direct result of selling. We hired faculty who just as easily could be at Columbia, Harvard, Yale or some top 25 institution.
Q: Are rankings the only criteria?
There are measures independent of rank. One is how are your students doing on standardized tests like the LSAT. How did they do as undergraduates, and what do those numbers say in an average sense about your class today? You compare those directly to any other law school, if you're an employer, and see what kind of a difference there is. These people are not paying attention just to rankings, they're paying attention to substance. When large law firms interview at some law schools and not others, there's a reason for that. There's a reason that has to do with their perceived likelihood of having a person in their firm who will be one of the best lawyers around, one of the best lawyers possible.
Q: You have a lot of advantages here in this region.
I absolutely agree that the presence of state government and the courts here is an advantage for us, for both experiential learning for students and placing students in externships. It's a highly attractive aspect of our location. We can achieve some of that from State College -- it certainly is not as easy as from Carlisle -- but there are many ways law schools can model their programs to really try and take as complete advantage of this area as we could from Carlisle. Semester-long internships for example.
My personal experience at Illinois, being 21/2 hours from Chicago, I always felt disadvantaged in comparison to city schools, clerkships with federal judges and state judges, government internships, etc. But the way they compensated was, in a couple of ways. For students who didn't want to spend a full semester and residence at one of those locations, we would make scheduling adjustments to make sure they had a full day a week or two full days a week. The other way is to really create more intense externships and clerkships where students actually get more credit than we currently allow for more time in a experienced-based location.
Q: Your options include building in Carlisle. Do you still think the best option is to move to University Park?
My personal position is yes, but I certainly view the law school as having open capacity and great potential in Carlisle, and I will do as I have done the last year, everything possible to achieve great stature and success for our students and school there.
Q: What steps would be needed to restore excellence if you stay in Carlisle?
In terms of a new facility design, I would want to have the capacity electronically to acquire, despite the distance, or to deliver over distance as much educational programming as feasible. Equip classrooms with, for example, screens that can display remotely delivered lectures or classes from other locations. Every seat will have a voice-activated microphone so that the interaction between the people in that room and the people at University Park -- or in Paris -- can interact meaningfully. We have classrooms like that at Illinois. I had a friend of mine teach immigration law who was in Chicago to students in Champaign, precisely because we had classes with that type of equipment. It's not as easy or as complete, it depends on reciprocity. It's a two-way street when it comes to high technology: You have to have buildings that are similarly equipped to have it be easy to deliver things remotely.
The other way is to do what we're doing: We would continue to try and hire people who are exceptional, to diversify in ways that are meaningful, to provide programs for our students that are exceptional and do everything just like that. I think that the immediate future I would almost do the same thing in both places. I would look 30 years out, and that kind of animates my view about preference. In 30 years, where will the Dickinson School of Law be best able to contend with the unknowns of practice, and the unknowns of legal education? Here, apart from the university of which it's a unit or on the campus of the major research university with all of the other units and departments and the 4,000 truly world-class professors that teach up there.
Q: Is this just a philosophical issue?
No, we would not be addressing this issue now but for our rather desperate need for major facilities improvement. I think that's what has caused us even to think about this. It is because of the fact that we can confront an investment of tens of millions of dollars in facilities -- in any location -- that we are confronting location issues. And some of it is the constraints of our current site, but we're happy that we think that we have come up with a feasible plan. It's not optimal because we are in a residential setting -- it was a smaller school -- and you do have to be suitable for that setting. It's easier to design an institutional presence in an institutional area, than in a residential one, but we think that we've come up with some pretty good plans for Carlisle.
Q: New facilities in Carlisle would represent a major commitment, wouldn't it?
I think it would represent significant commitment to remain, long term.
Q: Wouldn't the change in emphasis nationally to specialty practice also help to explain the changes in your enrollment since 1990?
Your point is an excellent one, and I would expand on it a little bit to suggest not only have new avenues of practice opened up, but conventional practices are changing. Retail vendors or retail manufacturers in the Harrisburg area no longer find their markets geographically. They sell over the Internet, they sell any number of ways.
And it reflects as much as anything the future of law practice, to the extent we're connected to commerce, we follow those developments. The internationalization of commerce will result in an internationalization of law practice, even if you are a practitioner who lives in Reading or Harrisburg and stays there. Precisely because your clients no longer view markets as limited by political or geographic boundaries.
And I think that kind of animates where legal education is going, too, that we have to be able to deliver a significant international component. Not only sensitivity to what other cultures, what other people think, what other legal systems require of people, what you might contend with if you are representing a client in international transaction.
The influence of science on practice is another important development. You can be a criminal lawyer and you have got to have a capacity to deal with the scientist who will be your DNA witness. Or regulations in terms of agricultural products. I can't imagine graduating a lawyer who wants to deal with our wonderfully robust agricultural economy in Pennsylvania who isn't equipped with both significant capacity in international dimensions of law practice and science-related aspects of law practice.
Do you have any of that curriculum now?
We have quite a bit of depth in international law, unusual depth, frankly, just in terms of recent hires and existing hires. Lou Del Duca, who has been there for years, is renowned throughout the United States, a leader in internationalizing the law curriculum. We have a young and newer professor, Eileen Cain, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology as well as a J.D., and I think that's a trend you'll see increasingly, to deliver intellectual property or law in biotechnology classes to our students.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received from faculty, students, alums ...?
It's mixed, to be honest. If you read the materials we sent to our alums, it's data-driven. You may not like the outcome, you may value different things differently, but it's data-driven. It's not a strong-arm tactic at all. And I think people increasingly are appreciating that.
I do view as an incredibly indespensable part of my job ... the preservation of the heritage of the Dickinson School of Law. Especially its name. I would love for the Dickinson School of Law to be to Penn State what the Wharton School is to Penn. That's my personal ambition for the law school.
I think our law school deserves that kind of reputation and acknowledgment of its excellence, and I think our students and graduates deserve that level of professional stature and that breadth of professional opportunity. And recognizing in a popular way that level of excellence is what it takes to open doors for our students.