The CDT recently editorialized (Nov. 26) that Gov. Ed Rendell and other politicians interested in keeping Penn State's Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle should "butt out." The editorial declared: "Whether the Dickinson School of Law eventually moves to State College is a decision for the Dickinson board of governors, (Penn State President Graham) Spanier and the Penn State board of trustees." I disagree, because the state has a vested economic interest in the fate of Dickinson and because PSU and its board invite scrutiny given their frequent predilection not to thoroughly account their decisions to the public.
First, regarding the state's interest: The harm to Carlisle's economy will be much greater than the gain to State College's if Dickinson is relocated.
This alone provides a legitimate reason for public participation. There's a strong tradition of university-community partnerships aimed at improving communities, especially in urban areas.
State governments have historically used colleges and universities to foster economic development. In fact, they are central to the governor's new plan, designed to stimulate urban economic revitalization. Thus, politicians have every right to be concerned.
Second, regarding why Dickinson may be moved from its founding home of 169 years: Philip McConnaughay, dean at Dickinson, has cited a number of relocation factors, including outdated facilities, physical restraints on expansion, and the school's "languishing reputation."
Yet, just a few weeks before relocation talks became known to the public, the Pennsylvania Law Weekly (Oct. 27) reported that Dickinson graduates had the highest passing rate of any law school in the state among first-time takers of the July 2003 bar exam. Said a delighted McConnaughay, "I'm smiling. ... It's something all law schools worry about. ... It reflects how many students from your school are successful." He further declared that pass rates influence matriculation decisions and that applications to Dickinson last year were up 46 percent from the year before.
Why does McConnaughay seem so enthusiastic about Dickinson in one moment, yet in the next imply its survival is contingent upon moving to State College? I believe two factors may be at play. McConnaughay has, as best as I can determine, few if any ties to this state. He did not attend college here nor does it appear he worked for any state employers prior to becoming Dickinson dean last summer.
Perhaps if he had deeper Pennsylvania roots he might not have only given up on Carlisle so quickly, but also appreciated how numerous Pennsylvania municipalities struggle after a major local employer leaves them for greener pastures.
The rapid response by concerned officials and citizens indicates a public will to find a local solution.
Second, is relocation about improving educational experiences or is it really about trying to elevate Dickinson to elite-level status? Penn State has an obligation to provide all its students a quality education.
It does not have an obligation to be nationally ranked in every field, including law. Dickinson has always been a respectable regional law school.
Though Dickinson may have some infrastructure and other concerns, is a $60 million relocation to State College really the only viable alternative? The school is obviously doing something right under its present structure, evidenced by the bar-exam success rate of its graduates.
There are also benefits of not being a cutthroat competitive elite school. Consider this from the Martindale.com Web site: "Perhaps the most valuable aspect of a Penn State Dickinson education is its intimate learning environment fostered by ready accessibility of faculty. Unlike many larger law schools, Dickinson's academic atmosphere, while competitive, is friendly and cooperative. Students and faculty truly get to know each other and often interact on a social level."
If Penn State wants to behave like a closely held private corporation, then it should forego its state-related status (and along with it more than $300 million annually in state appropriations) and become private.
John Cosgrove is a Penn State doctoral candidate in higher-education administration.