The following question-and-answer report was generated by a meeting of the Centre Daily Times editorial board and reporters and two key players in the effort to move the Dickinson School of Law from Carlisle to State College. Present were Penn State President Graham Spanier and Philip McConnaughay, Dean of Dickinson School of Law. Part II will be published on Monday.
CDT: Could you bring us to speed on the most recent developments in the discussion surrounding the plan to move the Dickinson School of Law from Carlisle to State College.
Spanier: The Board of Governors of the law school has a meeting scheduled on June 11 and 12, and at that meeting they anticipate taking up the question of the location of the law school. They have all of the materials that they've requested from us to make that decision.
For questions on the educational merits and specifically what would be involved with finances, we have made those documents publicly available because so many people would have them, we assumed they would be made public anyway and there's considerable public interest in this question. So, I think they'll have all of the information they need and then they'll have to decide what's in their hearts and minds and make what we hope will be a decision in the best interests of the law school.
CDT: Could we discuss the ultimate goal, looking at law school rankings as part of it? What is your vision for the law school?
McConnaughay: Well, I think that the goal is one of providing our students with the programs and the faculty that will enable them to be the best lawyers possible and to provide to them as well the widest, the most meaningful range of professional opportunities upon graduation. Increasingly I think in the last 25, 30 years you will see, if you look at the legal education in the United States, that most schools that are co-located with a research-oriented university campus are law schools that are best able to provide both the best programs and faculty the students deserve and the range of professional opportunities students deserve.
And it's a host of factors that contribute to that. It's harnessing the wonderfully rich resources of a research university campus, the many, many departments, literally thousands of distinguished professors who reside there, and bringing that resource and that body of knowledge to bear on the legal curriculum. Whether professors show up for a day for a lecture or whether law students take classes in departments, or whether faculty cooperate in offering symposia that are of benefit to the entire community, relationships are, in fact, more reflective of what lawyers will encounter in the real world as practitioners, than are the opportunities and experiences we could provide as a stand-alone institution.
Lawyers who practice law today feel, or really who practiced law always, law is only half of the equation to deal with people who have problems, whether they are family problems, marital problems, businesses with issues or objectives. And you bring the expertise of law to bear on these very independent objectives and issues that people in businesses confront. Inherently that is a multi-disciplinary effort. It is typical for lawyers to align themselves with experts in multiple areas in solving legal problems that are presented to them, and a university setting really allows us to replicate as closely as possible in the context of an educational experience -- what lawyers experience and do in their daily lives.
CDT: Is there a particular school that you are modeling your vision after?
McConnaughay: I think realistically that the single greatest compared advantage enjoyed by the Dickinson School of Law today is its relationship in working with the Penn State University, specifically with Penn State as a major research university.
If you look at all 180 law schools in the nation, and look at the ones that consistently attract the most renowned faculty, the best faculty, most highly qualified students, and produce some of the most prominent lawyers in today's society, they are those schools that are strongly affiliated with a research run university. There's only about 30 or 40 of them. The other 150 don't have that attribute. And it's reflected in certain objective criteria like the academic credentials of the students they are able to recruit? Like the faculty that they are able to recruit.
And the regularity with which their graduates contribute very significantly in addressing the problems of society. So, I do think we are uniquely situated among all law schools to acquire the multiple attributes of that group of law schools, that 40 or so that are deeply integrated with the nation's best universities. And co-location is a large part of being able to do that.
CDT: Will you be able to quantify if such a move is successful, if it happens?
McConnaughay: I think that there are objective measures of how we are performing as a law school. Part of it has to do with the academic credentials of the students we attract. And I believe we will see a significant uptake in the undergraduate records, LSAT scores, and perhaps, most importantly, life experiences of the students who select the Dickinson School of Law.
I think it will more closely in the future resemble the history of the law school with respect to its attractiveness. This is a law school that historically enjoyed the advantage, the particular advantage, of being the top-choice law school, really, of regional students. We have recruited from our back yard without a great deal of effort. Regional students come to us in abundance and our graduates are very prominent people: (U.S. Homeland Security Director) Tom Ridge, much of the federal bench in Pennsylvania, a sitting U.S. Senator, leading practitioners throughout Pennsylvania, et cetera.
Beginning in the late '80s or '90s, it was more of a struggle for stand alone law schools to compete for that type of student. And what we saw was the top Pennsylvanians going elsewhere. And you will see actually Dickinson School of Law having a more geographically diverse student body today than it did traditionally, but a less well credentialed student body than traditional. My belief is that if we co-locate, if we become more attractive to today's students through deep integration with a university that co-location makes possible, then we actually will restore our traditional function of returning to Pennsylvania top practitioners and government leaders in a way we are not doing quite as well today.
There are other measures, too. Diversity is a big measure. I think that we will be able to sustain improvements in the diversity of our student body and faculty as a co-located unit of a major research university more easily than if we are stand-alone.
CDT: Concerning faculty, are you interested in bringing in maybe some higher-level thinking? Have you given consideration to who is out there that you want, or what type of expertise maybe that's not in Carlisle that you definitely would bring to the school?
McConnaughay: Well, I wouldn't use the phrase "higher level thinking." We have a very fine faculty today. We are very fortunate in the ability to attract and keep very good faculty. I think in a sustained way, looking out for decades, you will find that top law faculty, whatever issue you may happen to be addressing at the time, will be attracted more strongly by the professional college that is joining a university campus than it will standing on its own.
There are some geographic advantages for co-location. For example, (Carlisle is) X number of miles closer to Washington, D.C. But there are 18 other law schools closer to Washington, D.C., than we are. It's a matter of comparative image. The universities are a comparative advantage (for law schools). I think that is what is most singularly attractive to top law faculty candidates.
CDT: Are there some different board members with specific questions at this time? Are either of you getting a lot of pressure?
Spanier: Phil meets with the board regularly and I've had two very extended discussions with them, perhaps totaling eight hours in length. I think the board has had most of their questions answered in terms of our thinking, in terms of the different resource issues involved and they are pretty well informed.
I think there are some board members who clearly see the wisdom of the move and understand that it will be an advantageous thing to do. There are some board members that are very strongly attached to Carlisle, to the law school being in Carlisle. And there are others who are still perhaps thinking through this. I think they now have most of the information they now need to make that decision and they know that we stand prepared to answer any of the remaining questions that they have. At this point we are not being asked much more because I think it's pretty well out there. So we just have to let the process play out.
CDT: Could you discuss the problems with relation to rankings and ratings for the Dickinson Law School and how that plays into this? What shortcomings are geographical and what are programmatic?
Spanier: Rankings and ratings is a sensitive and sometimes controversial topic. Schools that tend to rank real well often like being ranked highly, and they tout those rankings. Penn State does it because we do tend to be very highly ranked by almost any measure.
But at the same time when you're not ranked very well, you can have two reactions. One is to criticize the rankings, the other is to realize that it might be an indicator that some improvement or some changes are needed. My point of view is that love them or hate them, we have to live with them.
And there is no question that rankings of law schools are taken as meaningful by prospective law students and their families and the public. I don't think we can escape that. There are some rankings that are more prominent than others. But it seems clear that by any measure our rankings have slipped in recent years, and we have to be sensitive to that.
Now that has occurred despite the fact that Phil has done a marvelous job in increasing the number of applications, in hiring some outstanding faculty, in broadening the visibility of the school, and in working with his faculty to help students pass the bar exam and seek employment.
But Penn State is not accustomed to saying that we are happy being in the lower half. There's no program at Penn State where we are proud to be anywhere other than at or near the top. Or if we aren't, that we aren't striving for it. So we don't play to the rankings, but we focus on the educational issues underlying that ultimately, in good ranking systems, is reflected.
CDT: To that end, could you talk a bit about specific problems relating to the issues cited by Rodney Erickson in his report on the merits of relocating the law school. Is there a cause and effect?
McConnaughay: I would say that it's not related to Carlisle as much as it is related to being a stand-alone law school. If the University Park campus were to relocate to Carlisle and join us there, it would probably suit the law school's purposes equally well.
But it is true that what we are after is the programmatic integration. This isn't really a geographic issue. Carlisle is a very fine place, as is State College. I think that there are any number of issues when we compete for faculty. It's been a struggle in recent years to successfully recruit the top faculty we would like to recruit. We've done a great job in the last couple of years and a large part of that has been pre-existing personal acquaintances. I think that these people especially appreciate what it would mean to the law school as an institution to relocate.
Diversity has been a challenge for the law school for many, many years. I just had a graduating class that I presided over a commencement ceremony where there was in a graduating class of 166, no African-Americans and one African. The last few years we have recruited classes that are -- last year was 22 percent minority. This year could be 20 to 25 percent as an incoming class. In order to sustain that, we need to provide the opportunities and programs these students expect when they know they are signing up for Penn State.
And that's a large part of the challenge where we are. Because they do appreciate increasingly that we are a major university and they expect the programs typically provided by law schools of major universities. And we are missing many of those programs, whether it?s experience based clinics and externships that the university provides to their students.
The dean from Michigan State University, for example, he went down to speak to the Board of Governors a few weeks ago. And he laid out several different clinics that his law school has established since relocating from Detroit to East Lansing, to Michigan State's campus, where they have been cooperatively established law clinics for law students with other departments of the university -- an environmental law clinic, operated in conjunction with the environmental-related departments at Michigan State; a family law clinic, operated in conjunction with the department of social work; a small-business entrepreneurship clinic operated in conjunction with the business school. And those sorts of synergies are just not available to us meaningfully because of the distance between the law school and the rest of the university campus.
CDT: You said you are having difficulties getting high-level recruits at the university. Are you successfully retaining students?
McConnaughay: We do a pretty good job of retaining. I think traditionally the law school has not successfully recruited.
Throughout its history, it typically was under 10 percent diverse classes. I think we are effectively portraying to the public right now the opportunities and advantages of a relationship with Penn State, and that's the cause of our success in the last couple of years. But I do think we've got to deliver what that image conveys to students actually, and that requires programmatic content.