Let’s be honest about Penn State Law’s plan for Carlisle campus

If the latest proposal for the Penn State Dickinson School of Law goes through, the likelihood is there won’t be a law school in Carlisle in about a decade.
Building Dedication at Penn State LawMore than 500 people celebrated the dedication of The Lewis Katz Hall and H. Laddie Montague Jr. Law Library at The Penn State Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle in 2009.

I know law school dean Philip McConnaughay says Penn State remains “fully committed” to Carlisle. His heart is likely in the right place, but his plan would dramatically alter Carlisle. The central Pennsylvania community, not to mention the school’s alumni, needs to have an honest discussion about this shift.

The dean’s intention is to have all first-year law students at University Park, possibly as early as 2013. That right there signals the death of the law school in Carlisle. Once a student matriculates at University Park, he or she isn’t likely to leave.

Dean McConnaughay argues that students will want to come to the Carlisle campus to take advantage of specialty offerings such as centers focusing on child advocacy, law and development and state and local government. When pressed, the dean admitted that “maybe” a typical student would come to Carlisle. Even then, they are only likely to be here for a semester or even a summer.

In other words, the Carlisle campus would go from a vibrant place with hundreds of law students here for three years to one that has a few dozen (in a best-case scenario) here for a few weeks. It will be the end to stories such as that of Rep. Stephen Bloom’s (R-Carlisle). He came to the law school in the 1980s and stayed, raising a family, starting a business and ultimately getting involved in public life. That kind of story is repeated over and over in this area.

In the new scheme, Penn State Dickinson School of Law students will probably wonder why the school is even called Dickinson because the majority will spend their time exclusively at University Park. They will have little to no connection to Carlisle during or after their school days.

The marriage of Dickinson Law and Penn State never has been rosy since the 1997 agreement. Those who lived in the area in 2004-05 will likely recall the firestorm when Penn State last tried to move the law school to University Park. The university even threatened to walk away entirely from Dickinson.

After much political pressure and horse trading, a new agreement was signed to make the law school have two complete campuses. As any student of history knows, “separate but equal” usually doesn’t turn out well. The Carlisle campus received a $50 million facelift, but University Park got a $60 million new building. As one recent alum told me, “That was the beginning of the end for Carlisle.”

A remnant of that dual-campus agreement is that the law school is legally bound to stay in Carlisle until at least 2025. The dean has cleverly tried to recast the Carlisle campus as an international one. He envisions the LLM program, a one-year degree for foreign lawyers to learn the American legal system and prep for the bar exam, in Carlisle.

It would basically turn Carlisle into a continuing education center. It’s a decent revenue-generating idea, but it’s not exactly a law school.

This saga isn’t over yet. The dean must secure approval from various bodies to move all the first years to University Park.

“The dean can’t just move it because he would like to do it,” state Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, says. She’s open-minded to hearing more about the proposal, but “The prime objective is to keep the law school in Carlisle.”

Outside local lawmakers, there might be more sympathy to the dean’s idea in the state’s halls of power because of costs. It never made financial sense to run two fully fledged campuses. The dean is pitching his solution as a way to make the law school, which the university subsidizes by about $5 million a year, into a revenue-neutral operation. It doesn’t look good for Carlisle unless the alumni speak up again.

Perhaps the most interesting solution I have heard comes from Jason Kutulakis, an alum who co-founded Abom and Kutulakis in HEATHER LONG, The Patriot-News

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