CARLISLE, Pa. When Joe Heaton was considering where to study law, he wrestled with two options: the University of Cincinnati's law school in his native Ohio, and The Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania.
Dickinson won, thanks to its affiliation with Penn State University, which Heaton thought would lend prestige to his diploma. But Heaton was surprised to discover Dickinson wasn't on Penn State's University Park campus in State College, but in a residential neighborhood in Carlisle, about 90 miles away.
"I got here and I thought, 'Where's the stadium? This is really small for a Big Ten school,"' Heaton said Wednesday while taking a break from classes.
Heaton, who will graduate in May, is nonetheless pleased with his education. Still, he wonders whether it could have been better in a state-of-the-art facility at University Park.
That same question is on the minds of Dickinson officials, who are considering whether to move the 170-year-old law school, the oldest in Pennsylvania, from its lifelong home to State College in an effort to boost its stature.
Since November, when a confidential memo from law school Dean Philip J. McConnaughay recommending the move to Dickinson's governing board was leaked to a local newspaper, local leaders, state legislators and even Gov. Ed Rendell have rallied against the idea, saying it could hurt the local economy.
"Because of the length of time the law school has been here, I think that people in the community almost felt like we were being robbed," said Michelle Hornick, president of the Greater Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce.
McConnaughay said he considered renovating the school's aging buildings in Carlisle, where classroom, office and library space are inadequate and "multiple millions of dollars" of maintenance has been put off.
But he ultimately recommended the move, partly because of an analysis of college rankings compiled annually by U.S. News & World Report. He noted a strong correlation between a law school's ranking and its proximity to the main campus of the university to which it belongs.
The survey classifies Dickinson as a "third tier" school. Among Big Ten schools, Penn State is the only one with a law school on a distant campus.
The law school was founded in 1834 as a department of Dickinson College, a private, liberal arts college in Carlisle. Its graduates include U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
It became independent in 1890 and remained so until 2000, when it merged with Penn State.
Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon said the relocation was not envisioned at the time of the merger, although the merger agreement authorized Dickinson's board to make such a move at any time.
Even so, some state legislators say school officials made assurances that the law school would remain in Carlisle forever, and they have introduced various measures to block any move.
Dickinson's board has suspended its recent meeting because of a pending lawsuit filed by two newspapers that are seeking access to the meetings. And once the meetings resume, it will still take time to arrive at a solution, said J. Rodman Steele Jr., the board's vice chairman.
"I think that one of the questions that has to be answered is, why have many of our prospective students in the last 10 to 15 years chosen to go to other places over Dickinson, and does that relate to the law school itself, or does it relate to the location?" Steele said.