HARRISBURG The governing board of Pennsylvania State University's law school has limited power, but it has flexed that minuscule muscle to the fullest to try to keep the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle.
In an effort to end months of debate over how to improve the law school, the board voted by roughly a two-thirds majority Friday to recommend that Penn State concentrate on renovating and expanding the Carlisle campus. Penn State's board of trustees could consider the recommendation as early as next month.
The vote effectively scuttled a proposal from university president Graham Spanier to divide Dickinson's campus between Carlisle and the main campus in State College.
Established in 1834, Dickinson has been largely under Penn State's control since a merger between the two schools in 2000. At the time, Penn State was one of only two Big Ten universities without a law school, and Dickinson - the state's oldest law school - was seeking a way to survive in an increasingly competitive higher education market.
Penn State and its board of trustees oversee Dickinson's day-to-day operations, from hiring faculty to approving new courses. Dickinson's board of governors was given an advisory role but it retained authority over the law school's name and location, which was to be in Carlisle "in perpetuity."
LeRoy S. Zimmerman, chairman of Dickinson's board, said that even though Penn State never suggested at the time of the merger that it would contemplate moving the campus, Dickinson still wanted to retain a measure of veto power over the possibility.
When the idea of moving the campus to State College surfaced, sweetened by the prospect of Penn State's footing the estimated $60 million cost of a new campus, "that immediately created a suspicion and a skepticism that it's a good thing that we put this language in, because otherwise, we'd be up in Happy Valley," Zimmerman said. Though the dual-campus agreement was touted as a potential compromise, it became apparent in July during negotiations between Dickinson and Penn State that the university wasn't giving up on its efforts to acquire more leverage over the law school.
As a condition of that proposal, Penn State insisted upon having the power to transfer control of the Carlisle campus back to Dickinson's board or close it if it couldn't be sustained after at least 10 years.
Although both sides characterized the talks as collegial and without rancor, Rodney Erickson, a Penn State executive vice president and provost acknowledged that a power struggle was simmering.
"A fundamental issue... is that we were asking them to relinquish that power," Erickson said. "Higher education is changing so rapidly, including legal education, that we need to be able to respond in ways that make 'in perpetuity' difficult. Change is the order of the day."
But now, assuming Penn State's trustees concur, change will be focused on what promises to be a massive face-lift and expansion of the Carlisle campus, an estimated $50 million project to be completed by August 2008.