One month after its plans for The Dickinson School of Law collapsed, Penn State University may end its affiliation with the school and hand it over to Dickinson College. The university and Dickinson College announced yesterday they are discussing the idea of a merger between the Carlisle institutions. No timeline is established for making a decision.
Although they bear the same name and have adjacent campuses in Carlisle, the law school and Dickinson College have not been affiliated for 90 years.
The proximity of the campus and its history and commitment to the Carlisle community, however, prompted Dickinson College to consider the merger, said spokeswoman Christine Dugan.
College President William Durden referred a call to his office to Dugan. Dugan said, "It's still so preliminary that there's not really a lot of specifics that we can discuss."
Last month, the law school board of governors rejected an offer from Penn State to build a second campus in State College.
A merger would be a radical change for Dickinson College, Dugan said.
"The law school would alter our identity significantly," Dugan said. "So we have to carefully consider our mission and how this opportunity fits into our mission."
LeRoy Zimmerman, chairman of the law school's board of governors, said he has not participated in any discussion to dissolve the merger with Penn State. He said he learned about it through a telephone call yesterday morning from law school dean Philip McConnaughay.
"It sounds very interesting," Zimmerman said. "But there are still a lot of issues that need to be discussed."
Among them is Penn State's nearly $8.5 million investment in the law school since the two merged in 1997. There is also the $4 million loan, which the law school promised to pay back.
An agreement between Penn State and Dickinson College would also require the support of the law school's board. But Zimmerman said the move would likely require court approval, as was the case when the law school merged with Penn State.
During a briefing to university trustees yesterday about the law school's decision to spurn Penn State's offer to build a second campus in State College, Penn State President Graham Spanier made no mention of a possible Penn State-Dickinson Law School dissolution.
Instead, he spoke of the vision that the university had for a dual-campus law school. Penn State wanted to create an alternative to Dickinson's general law and government law emphasis by establishing a campus in State College for law students looking for interdisciplinary course offerings, joint degrees and access to resources of a research university.
The second campus was intended to raise the law school's national rankings and enhance its appeal to top-notch students. The university offered to spend $60 million to build the second campus.
After the law school turned down that offer, the law school board passed a resolution to plan for a $50 million law school to be built in Carlisle by 2008. Penn State promised to kick in up to $10 million and Gov. Ed Rendell committed $25 million, leaving the law school with $15 million to raise.
That $10 million pledge from the university was repeated during the trustees' meeting, along with a mention of coming back later with more definitive construction plans for the law school upgrade.
"We now must move forward and consider a future for the law school that will best serve future law students," Spanier told trustees.
He went on to say some law school faculty and staff were thinking about leaving their positions as a result of the law school board's decision to keep the school in its entirety in Carlisle. "I would urge them to allow us the time to chart the future course of the law school and other companion programs at Penn State," he told trustees.
Spanier could not be reached for comment after the announcement about the discussions with Dickinson College. Bill Mahon, university spokesman, said it's too early to discuss whether Penn State might start a law school at State College.
"This would not preclude it," he said. "We've had that option for 150 years, but we don't have any plans at the time being."
Zimmerman said that since the law school's merger with Penn State, issues have arisen as to "whether or not either institution was totally happy with the whole arrangement. But this opportunity [with Dickinson College] could provide a win-win situation."
He added: "At first blush, the issue of the name and location immediately go away. There are positives right there. ... But there are always issues that have to be discussed carefully before a second marriage."
Zimmerman spread the word to law school board members yesterday afternoon. But not all of them had checked their e-mail by the time the announcement was made public.
Law school board member Jason Kutulakis was caught by surprise. "It's quite a shock, actually," he said.
Kutulakis said he was intrigued by the idea, saying the college and the law school share the same historical philosophy and longstanding ties to the community.
"It's an exciting possibility," he said. "It's refreshing to see someone else that wants to make Dickinson School of Law the best it can be."
Carlisle officials also welcomed the opportunity.
"It could be very good in the long run," said state Sen. Hal Mowery, R-Cumberland. "I don't really think Penn State really wanted it that bad, after finding out there was a big push in the community to want to keep it here."
Moreover, Dickinson "ranks very high among independent colleges, not just in Pennsylvania, but nationally," said Mowery, a Dickinson College graduate. He said that could help boost the law school's ranking.
Carlisle Mayor Kirk Wilson said a college-law school merger was possibly the best possible outcome.
"It is an excellent opportunity," Wilson said. "The type of commitment Bill Durden has made will cross over to the law school. I honestly feel that with Durden it can become a much better institution and be more highly recognized than under the tutelage of Penn State."
"From a community standpoint, I don't think we could have a better situation," said Carlisle Borough Council President Frank Rankin. "Dickinson College has proven over the years to be a substantial and a very important part of the community and a key partner in the community. The fact they are willing to entertain acquiring the law school just gives me positive feelings."
This would not be the first time a Penn State expansion hasn't gone according to plan.
In 1997, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center merged with Danville-based Geisinger Medical Center to become Penn State Geisinger Health System, a system that covered much of central Pennsylvania.
But within two years, officials were negotiating the division of the two entities. They finally split in the summer of 2000 in a court settlement that cost Penn State $116.5 million. Staff writers Dan Miller and Joe Elias and The Associated Press contributed to this article. JAN MURPHY: 232-0668 or jmurphy@patriot- news.com INFOBOX: PENN STATE DICKINSON SCHOOL OF LAW
* Founded: In 1834, the oldest law school in Pennsylvania and the fifth oldest in the nation.
* Enrollment: 627
* Campus: Centered around one main building, Trickett Hall, in Carlisle.
* Graduates include: U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Sylvia H. Rambo, the first woman to serve as chief judge of U.S. Middle District Court. DICKINSON COLLEGE
* Chartered: In 1783, the first college chartered in the newly recognized United States of America.
* Enrollment: 2,224 full-time students.
* Campus: 115 acres in Carlisle.
* Budget: $91 million. The value of the endowment was $154 million. TIMELINE
* The Dickinson School of Law became fully independent from Dickinson College in 1914. It be came affiliated with Penn State University in 1997 and merged with Penn State three years later.
* Penn State last year proposed the establishment of a second campus of the law school on the State College campus of Penn State in an effort to give students more curriculum opportunities and boost Dickinson's admissions and national ranking.
* Dickinson's board of governors last month voted to defer Penn State's proposal to build the State College campus. The 170-year- old school was instead to embark on a $50 million campus upgrade centered around Trickett Hall.
* Yesterday, Penn State and Dickinson College officials announced they are exploring whether to turn the law school over to Dickinson College.