CARLISLE When Joe Heaton was considering where to study law, he wrestled with two options: the University of Cincinnati's law school in his native Ohio, and The Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania.
Dickinson won out, thanks to its affiliation with Penn State, which Heaton thought would lend prestige to his diploma. But Heaton he was surprised to discover Dickinson wasn't on Penn State's University Park campus in State College, but in a residential neighborhood in Carlisle, about 90 miles away.
"I got here and I thought, 'Where's the stadium? This is really small for a Big Ten school,"' Heaton said Wednesday while taking a break from classes in the school's cafeteria.
Heaton, who will graduate in May, is nonetheless pleased with his education. Still, he wonders whether it could have been better in a state-of-the-art facility at University Park.
"The quality of the education I've gotten is just superior ... but at the same time, being in this building, I feel like it's holding us back from where we could be," he said.
That same question is on the minds of Dickinson officials, who are considering whether to move the 170-year-old law school -- the oldest in Pennsylvania -- from its lifelong home to State College in an effort to boost its stature.
Since November, when a confidential memo from law school Dean Philip J. McConnaughay recommending the move to Dickinson's governing board was leaked to a local newspaper, community leaders, state legislators and even Gov. Ed Rendell have rallied against the idea, saying it could hurt the local economy.
"Because of the length of time the law school has been here, I think that people in the community almost felt like we were being robbed," said Michelle Hornick, president of the Greater Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce.
McConnaughay said he considered renovating the school's aging buildings in Carlisle, where classroom, office and library space are inadequate and "multiple millions of dollars" worth of maintenance has been put off.
But he ultimately recommended the move, partly because of an analysis of college rankings compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report. He noted a strong correlation between a law school's ranking and its proximity to the main campus of the university to which it belongs.
The survey classifies Dickinson as a "third tier" school. Among Big Ten schools, Penn State is the only one with a law school on a distant campus.
"My intuitive sense was ... schools that were deeply integrated programmatically with a flagship campus of a major research university tended to fare better in terms of their academic reputation ... than did law schools that were not," McConnaughay said.
The law school was founded in 1834 as a department of Dickinson College, a private, liberal arts college in Carlisle. Its graduates include U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, a former governor.
It became independent in 1890 and remained so until 2000, when it merged with Penn State.
Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon said the relocation was not envisioned at the time of the merger, although the merger agreement authorized Dickinson's board to make such a move at any time.
Even so, some state legislators say school officials made assurances that the law school would remain in Carlisle forever, and they have introduced various measures intended to block any move.
Rep. William Gabig, R-Cumberland, is sponsoring a bill to expressly prohibit Penn State from relocating the law school.
"They are a state-chartered institution ... that gets hundreds of millions of dollars from Pennsylvania taxpayers," Gabig said. "There is nothing in their charter that says they have the power to shut down a law school and start a new one."
Michigan State University experienced similar turmoil when it moved its law school, the former Detroit College of Law, from downtown Detroit to the university's main campus in East Lansing, also about 90 miles away. The move was completed in 1997, two years after the law school became affiliated with the university.
"There were alumni who felt we were leaving them behind and perhaps leaving behind some of our mission," said law school dean Terence Blackburn at Michigan State. "The old school was in some respects what I would have called a school of opportunity. It took a lot of people who didn't have the time to spend in full-time study, people who worked during the academic year."
But Michigan State has reaped several benefits as a result of the move, such as being able to offer a wide array of dual-degree programs, Blackburn added.
Dickinson's board had suspended its recent meetings because of a pending lawsuit in Commonwealth Court in which two newspapers were seeking access to the meetings. The court ruled Friday that the law school board can legally meet in private.
Board Chairman LeRoy S. Zimmerman, however, said the board is scheduled to meet Friday and Saturday in State College, and the media will be allowed to attend the meeting Saturday, when the board is scheduled to discuss possible law school campus sites.
The board is not expected to make any decision at that meeting Zimmerman said. J. Rodman Steele Jr., the board's vice chairman, said it will take time to arrive at a solution.
"I think that one of the questions that has to be answered is, why have many of our prospective students in the last 10 to 15 years chosen to go to other places over Dickinson, and does that relate to the law school itself, or does it relate to the location?" Steele said.