Monday, May 24, 2004

Penn State's law school plan isn't nearly daring enough

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Monday, May 24, 2004

TAKE A CHANCE ; Penn State's law school plan isn't nearly daring enough

Of the Patriot-News

It is sorely disappointing to us that the leaders at Penn State, for whom we have the greatest admiration, are not daring to be different, not daring to create a different model of what a university law school should be. Their plan for the Dickinson School of Law seems not to recognize the many attributes of Carlisle's close proximity to the seat of state government and to a full range of state and federal courts, with highly regarded judges and lawyers practicing before them.

We had hoped that Penn State President Graham Spanier and Dean Philip McConnaughay would demonstrate more imagination over the possibilities for the school rather than what looks like a single- minded mission to move Dickinson from Carlisle to the main campus at State College.

They have informed the law school's board of governors that the university will spend $63 million to create a Big 10-style law campus at University Park, but will provide only $10 million for renovations should the governors vote to keep the school in Carlisle.

And should they reject Penn State's generous offer, the governors were put on notice that the law school would be expected to become economically self-sufficient in 10 years.

Penn State's effort to move the school it acquired in 1997 hinges on the proposition that ?indisputably?? superior educational benefits would accrue from being located on the main campus. One benefit, according to the recommendation of Penn State Provost Rodney A. Erickson, would be rubbing shoulders with ?many of the world's best scientists, engineers, artists and other leaders of their disciplines.??

And the move to University Park appears driven in no small part by the arbiters of law-school excellence who apparently believe there is but one way to provide a legal education and it is on the main campus of a large university. Their annual law school rankings in U.S. News & World Report are awaited by law school deans everywhere with palpitating hearts for fear that they may have been dropped a notch or two.

Penn State insists that the law school can achieve its full potential only by being physically present at State College. Thus, you have to wonder why the university bothered to seek a merger with Dickinson instead of simply creating a whole new law school so that it could be exactly the way it wants it to be.

This entire episode has been handled badly from the start, and it isn't getting better. Clearly, law school officials sought to make the move to the main campus on the quiet, as a fait accompli, leaving the public out of the picture. Now it seeks to make the decision to remain in Carlisle as unpalatable as possible for the board of governors.

Yet, the institution that the university wants to dispense with ranked first in students passing the bar examination, better even than graduates of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, which is ranked seventh in the country. Dickinson Law drew a record number of applications for the 2004-5 school year. These are real measures of success that are to Dickinson's credit under Penn State tutelage, yet are given virtually no weight.

The law school governors had every right to expect a much more creative alternative plan for Carlisle, not an offer that says, in effect, move the facility to the main campus or prepare to be treated as second rate, with survival-level funding for the rest of your existence.

Penn State needs to reconsider and revise its offer. First, it needs to step back from the perceived wisdom that excellence is possible only at a law school situated on a main campus. It needs to consider, more broadly than it has done before, the vast untapped opportunities for legal education and experience available near Carlisle, including both the full range of state government and Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. It needs to pursue the kind of international connections that the Ford Foundation indicated to McConnaughay it was interested in funding.

It needs also to consider the potential of having a satellite campus at University Park, rather than vice versa. One of the ironies is that Penn State is one of this nation's leaders when it comes to distance education. Yet you would not know it from this discussion.

There could be no greater mission for a law school than to extend the law's inherent promise of fair treatment to all to those who historically have been underserved, even ill-served, by our legal system. Pennsylvania needs a law school prepared to get its hands dirty, not one that exists only in the rarefied air of academia. We already have plenty of those kinds of law schools.

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