Sunday, April 11, 2004

Penn State drops ball on obligation to Carlisle

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Sunday, April 11, 2004

Review & Opinion

Penn State drops ball on obligation to Carlisle ; School forgets role as "people's university"


Late last month, Penn State celebrated its 150th anniversary as Pennsylvania's only land-grant university. With great fanfare, the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives each passed resolutions commending Penn State "for 150 years of service to the citizens of this commonwealth." President Graham Spanier referred to Penn State as "the people's university," and trustee James S. Broadhurst assured those gathered in the Capitol Rotunda that " "Penn State: making life better" is more than just a slogan."

To a lifelong resident of Carlisle and a graduate of the Dickinson School of Law, the insincerity and irony of these words are painfully acute. While Penn State touts its statewide reach through 24 branch campuses, its contributions to Pennsylvania's quality of life and its economic impact as the largest non-governmental employer in the state, it continues to plot to relocate the Dickinson School of Law from Carlisle to State College.

In its quest to demonstrate its might, Penn State has, in fact, forgotten that the excellence of the whole is dependent upon the strength of its parts.

Penn State's reach extends to Carlisle because of the Dickinson School of Law, with which it merged in 1997. The law school not only greatly enhances the quality of life in the community, but it is also a major regional employer with an annual economic impact of $20 million. As such, the citizens of Carlisle have become dependent on Penn State to ?make life better,?? just as do the citizens who live in the communities where Penn State's other 23 campuses are located.

I am the director of real estate development for the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority and am in the business of trying to ?make life better?? for the citizens of our county, including Carlisle. I am well aware of the ripple effect that a major employer has upon a community and the devastating economic impact that results from its departure.

Five months ago, Phil McConnaughay, dean of the law school, presented to its Board of Governors a recommendation to move the school to State College. The lengthy memorandum was well-researched from a single point of view -- and it was intended to be confidential. And herein lies the problem.

Setting aside the issue of whether the meetings of the Board of Governors should be conducted in public, Penn State, at the least, has an obligation to responsibly inform and involve those citizens whose welfare will be directly affected by its actions. Neither Dean McConnaughay nor the Penn State administration consulted with the elected and civic leaders of Carlisle before distributing the now infamous memo. If that isn't bad enough, they haven't even bothered to consult with the community since the proposal became public.

For the last five months, I have sat on a task force composed of elected and civic leaders and convened by the Greater Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce. We have met weekly and have repeatedly extended our offer of the community's services and resources to allow for an honest and open exploration of ways to keep the law school in Carlisle.

We met with the dean and board chairman LeRoy Zimmerman -- once - - at our request. We met -- once -- with the chairs of two of the four ad hoc committees formed by the Board of Governors to look at alternative sites for the school. But then the board and its committees stopped meeting.

In other words, a genuine discussion that involves all stakeholders and thoroughly ex- plores all options to keep the Dickinson School of Law in the community in which it has existed for more than 170 years has yet to take place.

WHAT, I FIND MYSELF ASKING, goes on in the communities in which Penn State's 23 other campuses are found? Are secretive plans afoot there as well to siphon off jobs, income and opportunity? Will these communities face the prospect that confronts Carlisle -- an abandoned building in the heart of town, the loss of a sizable and well-educated work force and the demise of an historic institution? As a Dickinson School of Law alumnus, I want to see the excellence of my alma mater enhanced. But as a resident of Carlisle, I also want to protect the health of my community.

When I first learned of it, I must admit that I was hopeful that the merger with Penn State would strengthen the academic credentials of my alma mater, but concerned that the law school would possibly be moved elsewhere.

When the merger was finally announced, I was comforted with the fact that Penn State had agreed at that time to keep the law school in Carlisle forever. This in my mind showed that Penn State was committed to our community. In seven short years, Penn State has forgotten about its commitment.

As the state's largest public university and the recipient of more than $300 million annually in state funding, Penn State's mission is, in its own definition, to ?make life better?? for the people of Pennsylvania. I hope that the public and the members of the General Assembly will hold the university to its promise.

CHRISTOPHER C. HOUSTON is deputy director of the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority.

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