Last week's shelving of Penn State's plan to split its Dickinson School of Law into two campuses was likely based less on its merits than on its stipulations. Members of the law school's Board of Governors knew that if they approved the two-campus plan, Penn State could close Trickett Hall in Carlisle after 10 years without their approval and move the school fully to State College.
In return for a short-term commitment in Carlisle, where the law school was founded in 1834, they were being asked to cede the control they retained when Penn State and Dickinson merged in 2000.
Surely the board's 22-12 vote Friday to put the plan on ice did not reflect members' concerns for the school's future. It was clear from the statements of several to staff writer Elizabeth Gibson that they understood the magnitude of raising $15 million in private contributions that will assure a $50 million renovation of the school's existing campus in Carlisle.
However, when Dean Philip McConnaughay sent the board a confidential memo last fall proposing to move the school entirely to State College, at least some members, like nearly everyone else in the region, saw it as a solution in search of a problem. Few realized that the always highly regarded school had slipped to the third tier in national reputation and that its graduates no longer were getting offers from the nation's biggest and best firms.
It was the failure to educate the board and the community about the need for significant change before proposing the move to State College that cost Penn State early support. And it was the university's insistence on an Aug. 15 deadline for a decision on the two-campus plan, with its stipulation for unilateral action if the Carlisle campus failed financially, that further stoked suspicions and community opposition to the move.
With its reputation for innovation, especially in so-called distance learning, the university surely has resources to bridge some of the gaps it sees between the law school and its other academic disciplines. The desire of many firms to hire young lawyers with a secondary specialty or even a graduate degree is the key reason Penn State wanted to bring the law school to its main campus. The university now must address this issue in some other way.
But in voting to keep the school in Carlisle and not open a second campus, the Board of Governors has assumed a responsibility of its own in this area. The governors need to determine why Dickinson Law graduates are not getting the best job offers, even from fellow Dickinsonians, at the best firms. The school needs not just dollars from these highly successful alumni, but help in rebuilding credibility and standing, as well.
In January 1997, when the merger was announced, university President Graham Spanier wrote in a commentary for this newspaper about the value to the commonwealth of Dickinson School of Law, which, he said, "has a tradition of outreach and service that fits perfectly with the land grant service mission of Penn State."
He added: "The law school joins an institution that is not geographically bound, but rather provides many of its important services in diverse communities throughout the state. ... I am particularly pleased that this merger provides Penn State yet another opportunity to serve state government and the people of the greater Harrisburg area."
There is no reason Dickinson Law cannot fulfill these expectations and, at the same time, open doors for its graduates wherever they desire to practice law. Seeing that it happens remains the greatest challenge for both the law school and its parent university, regardless of Friday's vote.