Benjamin Rush established Dickinson College two blocks from the Cumberland County Courthouse in Carlisle so that its students could walk there and see democracy in action. Proximity was no less important a few decades later when the college created one of the nation's first law schools. And even though Dickinson School of Law later became independent of the college, its has remained true to its original purpose of turning out lawyers prepared to represent the people in the courts closest to them.
The law school's merger with Penn State four years ago provided the land-grant university with one more avenue to fulfill its mission of improving the quality of life in the commonwealth. Yet, you can't fault Penn State officials for wanting their law school to rank among the nation's best, so that its graduates are sought by the best law firms. That's a goal widely held among institutions of higher learning.
Combining all those interests has been the most difficult adjustment of these two institutions, and if the two part ways it will be because the effort failed.
We believe it's possible for the merger to succeed without moving the law school to State College, as Penn State proposed a year ago. The university excels in so-called distance learning, and some of the money it would spend to build a new law school campus could instead fund sophisticated communications links between University Park and Carlisle.
Penn State disagrees, and after its full-scale moving plan met with major community opposition, it proposed splitting the law school into two campuses, establishing the larger one at University Park so that law students could study in other academic disciplines and possibly obtain dual degrees. The law school board of governors, which under the merger agreement can veto campus relocation, rejected the plan in August after Penn State declined to guarantee that the Carlisle campus would remain viable and permanent.
In September, the university disclosed that talks were under way to transfer ownership of the law school to the neighboring Dickinson College. Though the college does not offer graduate degree programs - - it would have to partner with other universities to offer dual degrees -- it does have an impressive record in global education, as well as serious study in several of the liberal arts.
And Dickinson College President William Durden has a defined vision for "a small, highly distinctive law school that has developed creative partnerships with a number of higher education institutions around the world and which occupies a special niche in a global world." He would have it establish new ties with the Army War College and other institutions in central Pennsylvania, as well.
The law school's governors have been meeting with Penn State officials this fall, and last weekend they voted 26-4 to ask the university formally for another consideration of the dual campus proposal. While it's encouraging to learn that the parties are still talking, the governors should reject any proposal that does not include, in writing, a long-term commitment for the law school to keep its base in Carlisle, where it represents, in Durden's words, an intellectual and economic generator for this region.
We wish only the best for Dickinson School of Law, which deserves to be recognized for its excellence -- its graduates rank first in passing the bar exam on first try -- as well as for Penn State, which deserves a first-rate law school. Just a few years ago these institutions believed those interests intersected at Carlisle. We're yet to be persuaded otherwise.