Does splitting the baby in two make for a workable institution? Or will the innovative proposal from Penn State to maintain a large Dickinson School of Law presence in both Carlisle and State College simply create a holding pattern until a full move to the latter becomes compelling? The law school's board of governors will need a lot more detail about how this bifurcated law school would work than so far has been made public. And they will surely want a guarantee that at some future date the university won't decide that a two- campus law school doesn't work and close the Carlisle campus.
"Plan B," as Penn State President Graham Spanier called it, was presented Friday night as the governors met to decide whether to move the law school to a promised new $60 million facility on the University Park campus, or remain at a far less well-funded facility in Carlisle. Had there not been a new proposal, it appears that the governors were prepared to reject the move. Instead, they voted to consider the new plan and make a decision by Aug. 15.
The good news is that Penn State has demonstrated a willingness to be flexible and to consider alternatives to the Big Ten law school model firmly rooted on the main campus. That remains the dominant element in the plan, but Carlisle gets more out of this proposal than the university earlier proposed -- a Carlisle "law center" -- in what was essentially a full-blown move to State College.
Yet, under Plan B, the main campus would receive the larger slice of the pie: a new building, more faculty, more students, more resources. Over time, one suspects, the center of gravity would tilt ever more emphatically toward University Park. In a decade or so, would the question arise: Why are we doing it this way, which involves costly duplication and the fading prestige of the vestige of the original institution left behind in Carlisle? Then, does it become time for the inevitable step of irrevocably severing the institution's Carlisle campus?
Promises will be made otherwise, of course. And while we don't doubt Spanier's word, the pledge should be in writing for the long haul. There is, after all, a great deal of skepticism surrounding Penn State's original intentions with the 1997 coming together of the two institutions. Did Penn State not then long to have a law school on campus? Was it not familiar with the law school model that defines upper-echelon rank?
One of the dangers in Plan B is that unless a conscious and continuous effort is made to treat both campuses as equals, one will come to be deemed superior to the other, one less than a full partner. And we know which campus that will be.
The desire to keep Dickinson School of Law firmly connected to its roots doesn't flow from misplaced nostalgia or a refusal to accept the need to keep abreast of the times.
Rather, it comes from the appreciation that the school in its current form is a fine institution that has long been, and remains, an important regional asset.
It can, and should, strive to become better still. The question is whether Plan B is the best way to get there, and retain a strong and lasting presence in the community of its founding.
At this point, there's too little detail even to guess.