The unanimous votes by both the state House and Senate to open board meetings of Penn State's Dickinson School of Law to the public was a victory for Pennsylvania citizens. As a public law school, the board has an obligation to provide high standards of accountability and transparency in its dealings, particularly over such a heated and momentous debate as the future of the school.
To open the board meetings, legislators had to expand the language in the Open Meetings -- or ?Sunshine?? -- Law to include ?nonprofit boards affiliated with state institutions of higher learning.?? The original Sunshine Act mandated that board meetings of public institutions of higher education be open to the public, a measure that always covered Penn State University and would seemingly cover its law school. However, the Commonwealth Court ruled in April that the law school board operates separately from the university and is therefore not subject to the act.
Over the past year, the law school board has conducted all of its meetings in secret. Had it not been for a breach of confidentiality last year by board members angry at the possibility of a move, the law school might be on its way to State College already, or at least portions of it. Such a decision behind closed doors is not in the best interest of Pennsylvania, the law school or its parent university.
More is at stake in the upcoming board decisions than physical location. At heart, the debate is about the philosophical direction of the school, which will affect more than the school's alumni.
A move to State College is a move to follow the predominant trend of Ivy League and top tier law schools who are ?going global.?? Students would pursue flashy joint degrees such as law and business, and they would graduate and head off to the top law firms and corporations in New York, Washington and around the world.
But does Pennsylvania really need another law school like the University of Pennsylvania's? And can a new law school in State College really expect to reach the status of a top 25 law school that it would need to be competitive in the global legal network?
Or do we want a public law school that still prepares top-shelf district attorneys, county and state judges, state legislators and a myriad of small-practice lawyers? In other words, do we want Penn State's Dickinson Law School to continue building upon its 170 years in Carlisle of molding the movers and shakers of this state?
The current proposal before the board says we need a bit of both that could be met by a dual-campus framework. The State College operation would be slightly larger -- accommodating 450 students and 30 faculty compared to 300 students and 20 faculty in Carlisle. The Dickinson campus would undergo a $25 million renovation, which Gov. Ed Rendell, a supporter of the dual-campus plan, has pledged $10 million in state money to help fund.
We already have raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of the dual-campus measure as well as whether a dual campus is simply a tide-over settlement until the whole operation can be moved to State College.
Whatever the outcome of the board's August meeting, Pennsylvania citizens deserve to hear the debate and know each board member's reasoning for voting the way they do. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Harold Mowery, R-Cumberland, and the Legislature deserve credit for seeing that it will happen.