The controversial proposal to relocate the Dickinson School of Law from Carlisle to State College has a familiar ring. Two summers ago, as central Pennsylvania watched in rapt attention, a similar battle raged over the fate of another regional legend, Hershey Foods. The Hershey Trust, controlling stockholder of the famous chocolate maker, had decided to place the company on the auction block. The community was astonished. It faced the loss not only of a major employer, but a much-loved institution that helped define central Pennsylvania's culture and ideals.
Responding to the outcry, the Hershey Trust argued that its only mission was to preserve the Milton Hershey School for disadvantaged children. Selling the company would diversify the Trust's assets and maximize its endowment for the benefit of needy youth.
Of course, the sale never happened. After Attorney General Mike Fisher bottled up the bidding process in court, Gov. Mark Schweiker signed special legislation making it well-nigh impossible for the Hershey Trust to ever sell Hershey Foods.
The law "gives the community a chance to protect its well- being," said a spokesman for the governor after the bill was signed. "In the Hershey case, what was considered a permanent bond in the community was almost permanently severed without warning."
Talk about a permanent bond: Carlisle's ties to the Dickinson School of Law predate Milton Hershey's birth, much less the creation of his chocolate company. Founded in 1834, Dickinson was the nation's oldest independent law school when it merged with Penn State in 1997.
Dickinson's alumni include governors, U.S. senators, judges at the federal, state and local level, and other civic leaders who've served Pennsylvania for generations. To this day, its graduates do as well or better on the bar exam as any law school graduates in the state. Breaking its original promise to keep the school in Carlisle, Penn State proposed late last year to move the school to a new $60 million campus at University Park.
When it appeared the idea might be rejected by the school's board of governors, Penn State President Graham Spanier offered an eleventh-hour proposal to create two campuses, with a downsized one remaining in Carlisle.
Many fear the dual campus plan is only a temporary fix. Once the board approves moving the main campus to University Park, the Carlisle satellite may be left to wither away. Even if it doesn't, Dickinson and Carlisle will never be the same.
Like the Hershey Trust, Penn State says it has only the good of its school at heart. Like the Hershey Trust, Penn State has studiously the ignored the implications of its decision on the larger community.
As a recent report by the Brookings Institution has documented, our traditional towns have steadily lost residents and jobs for decades to the new housing subdivisions, shopping malls and corporate centers we've built in the countryside.
Even as we decry vanishing farmland and open space, state government has accelerated the process by investing more money in newly developing areas than the established communities where most of us still live.
Venerable institutions like Dickinson Law are our towns' greatest assets. They give them their sense of history and identity. They contribute economically and greatly enhance their quality of life. To revitalize our towns, we must build on these institutions, not remove or eviscerate them. And as they grow, land-locked schools like Dickinson can strengthen towns by adaptively reusing buildings that might otherwise deteriorate, such as the soon-to-be-vacant Carlisle Hospital.
When the schools first merged, President Spanier boasted that Dickinson "joins an institution that is not geographically bound, but rather provides many of its important services in diverse communities throughout the state."
"Tradition is important," Spanier said. "Penn State will remain particularly sensitive to the pledge of being a good neighbor to the people of Carlisle and a good steward of the Dickinson reputation that thousands of people have spent so many years establishing. "I am particularly pleased that this merger provides Penn State yet another opportunity to serve state government and the people of the greater Harrisburg area."
Two years ago, it took an act of state government to remind the Hershey Trust of its obligations to the community. This time around, I hope the Dickinson board of governors will stand firm on what the community needs, as opposed to what Penn State wants.
Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is author of "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns." He resides in Pottstown, Pa.