STATE COLLEGE When H. Jesse Arnelle invited the dean of the Dickinson School of Law to a Penn State football game in the fall of 1995, he had something very big in mind.
Arnelle, a graduate of both schools, wanted Dickinson Dean Peter Glenn to meet Penn State President Graham Spanier, ostensibly to talk about ways the two schools could collaborate on some programs.
But what he really wanted was to lay the groundwork for a potential merger one that would strengthen both the law school and the university.
?That's why I brought them together,?? said Arnelle, a San Francisco lawyer and chairman of Penn State's Board of Trustees. ?I'm sure Peter knew that.??
Not really, said Glenn.
?In the short term, the conversations were about joint degree programs we could offer,?? he said. ?The nature of the conversation didn't really change until late spring .??
Spanier was the first to broach the subject, suggesting a merger as a possibility just before Christmas 1995, Glenn said.
?That was beyond anything I could consider,?? he said. ?It wasn't until several months later that the board of trustees authorized those discussions.??
The merger talks, which involved a handful of high-level officials from both schools, moved much more quickly than anyone had imagined.
?I thought it was going to happen, but not so fast,?? said Arnelle. ?After the early conversations [on collaboration], I thought it would take three to five years to plant a seed and then maybe we could start talking about it.??
But there was such good chemistry between Spanier and Glenn that the deal was sewed up within about six months.
It essentially was closed on Friday, when Penn State's Board of Trustees voted unanimously for the merger. Dickinson's board had voted a week earlier, with little dissent.
The announcement of the merger caught many people by surprise. Some felt Penn State gained much more than Dickinson did.
Arnelle, Spanier, Glenn and virtually everyone else who was involved in the talks insist it was a winning proposition for Dickinson as well.
That doesn't mean the decision was easy, Glenn said.
Dickinson is one of the oldest independent law schools in the nation. Its alumni are fiercely loyal, the dean said.
?This was an easier decision in terms of logic than emotion,?? Glenn said. ?The board should be commended for taking not the path of least resistance, but for making the hard choice.??
The merger makes a lot of sense logically, said Nancy LaMont, chair of Dickinson's Strategic and Long-range Planning Committee, which recommended the action to the board.
The face of legal education in America is changing, she said. Law schools nationwide are turning out fewer lawyers, and more graduates are specializing in fields such as business, health and public policy. Far fewer are interested in general practice.
Through associations with Penn State's array of professional colleges, including the Smeal College of Business and the College of Medicine in Hershey, Dickinson students will be able to become legal specialists. That will make them more marketable.
Dickinson students also will have access to Penn State's vast libraries and to its extensive telecommunications network. They are resources a school the size of Dickinson could never hope to afford on its own, LaMont said.
And without them, the quality of a Dickinson education, now regarded as one of the best available in the nation, could begin to decline, she said.
?We're still negotiating from a position of strength,?? LaMont said. ?If we had waited three or four years, we may not have had that.??
Dickinson graduates consistently do well on the state bar exam, often finishing with the best pass rate of any of the seven law schools in Pennsylvania.
If Dickinson was going to give up its independence to merge with anyone, Penn State was the obvious choice, LaMont said.
?Not only are they in our backyard, they're top drawer,?? she said.
Someone in California who is considering applying to law school may not have heard of Dickinson, but he or she probably has heard of Penn State, LaMont said. The ?new?? law school will be known as Dickinson School of Law of The Pennsylvania State University.
Penn State officials have long felt the lack of a law school was a serious shortcoming of the university. On at least three previous occasions most recently in 1986 they have talked to Dickinson about the possibility of joining forces, according to Spanier.
Almost from the day he arrived on campus in August 1995, Spanier has shared the dream of his predecessors.
There was no way, however, he wanted to take on the daunting task of trying to convince trustees or anyone else that Penn State should start a new law school.
?Pennsylvania doesn't need another law school,?? Spanier said. ?I'm sure Penn State would have succeeded quite nicely if it had chosen to start a new one, but it would not have been in the best interest of legal education.??
Dickinson was Penn State's first and only choice, he said.
?We never discussed the possibility with anyone else, and no one else approached us,?? Spanier said. ?Dickinson was our only option.??
The Penn State-Dickinson merger was one of three major accomplishments announced by the university last week. Spanier played a major role in all three.
The university also received approval from the state to expand programming at most of its branch campuses, to include the offering of more four-year degrees at 11 locations. And, on Friday, Penn State's Board announced a merger with the Geisinger Health System headquartered in Danville, to be known as the Penn State Geisinger Health System.
?Sometimes he moves so fast, it's hard to keep up,?? Arnelle said, referring to the university's youthful president, who has been on the job just 18 months.
All have helped position Penn State at the forefront of higher education in the United States, Arnelle said.
After the board of trustees ratified the Dickinson merger, he said, ?I think we have reached a point where we will go forward together, where by the turn of the century we will be the premiere public university in America.
?That's our goal, and that's where we're going to be.??