Some proposed changes at Penn State’s law school are drawing scrutiny, and concerns from some who worry it could weaken the Carlisle campus.
An internal memo obtained by The Patriot-News outlines at least one measure that would do away with the Dickinson School of Law’s two-campus operation. Penn State received a $25 million state grant on the condition it maintain two fully accredited campuses through June 2025.
Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law operates campuses in Carlisle and State College. An internal memo obtained by The Patriot-News outlines at least one measure that would make changes at the Dickinson School of Law’s Carlisle campus.
Critics fear it would lead to a weaker program, and worry that it’s leading to steps that could eventually result in the closure of the Carlisle campus.
Professors who voted on the proposals have been told not to publicly discuss them. And an advisory board, charged with ensuring Penn State meets terms of an agreement to maintain two law campuses, won’t comment.
Law school Dean Philip McConnaughay insists that there are no plans to close the Carlisle campus. He asserts the plans would in fact lead to a stronger program in Carlisle.
The two-campus arrangement was approved in 2005 in drawn-out, heated negotiations after Penn State proposed moving the law school from Carlisle to State College. The university received a $25 million state grant on the condition it maintain two fully accredited campuses through June 2025.
In the memo, McConnaughay said that at least one money-saving proposal would require a waiver from the advisory board.
That option calls for eliminating the program for first-year students in Carlisle. Instead, those students would attend classes only in State College. The memo said the option “better serves the long-term interests of the law school.” Among advantages he cites is a potential boost in rankings because the two-campus operation would “finally… make sense to academic observers.”
Another option would require all students to spend one semester or longer in State College. Students now can elect to study at either campus. McConnaughay said in the memo that such a change would not require a contract waiver.
Penn State President Rod Erickson is aware of McConnaughay’s proposals, according to university spokeswoman Lisa Powers. Powers said the issue has not been discussed by trustees.
Without addressing specific proposals, McConnaughay on Tuesday said the changes would cut expenses and enhance the law school’s reputation as it, along with law schools across the nation, confronts a downturn in student applications. He contends the aim is to maintain and strengthen the law school. To portray changes as anything less than an enhancement would be false, he said.
But that’s not how some see it.
The call for an end to the two-campus solution rips a scab from still-healing law school alumni and officials who fought plans in 2003 to close the Carlisle facility.
Carlisle Mayor Bill “Doc” Kronenberg said he would be appalled if Penn State broke its two-campus agreement.
Borough Councilwoman Linda Cecconello took an active role in talks with university officials when the two-campus solution was reached.
“People around here thought this was settled. The feeling I get is that nobody really knows what will happen next,” Cecconello said.
McConnaughay was expected to ask the law school advisory board last week for a contract waiver to permit elimination of the first-year program in Carlisle. It wasn’t known if the board gave it. Members contacted for this story — Hubert X. Gilroy, H. Laddie Montague, U.S. Middle District Senior Judge Sylvia H. Rambo and state Supreme Court Judge J. Michael Eakin — refused to comment or did not return calls seeking comment.
Law school faculty also were mum.
Professors apparently were asked on July 18 to vote on options put forth by McConnaughay. All professors contacted for this story refused to comment. One said, on the condition of anonymity, that McConnaughay had instructed faculty to keep the information confidential.
“It’s outrageous that Penn State, after the mishandling of the Sandusky case, wants to go out on a limb and breach a contract,” said Jason Kutulakis, a law school alum and former member of law school board.
Some, such as Kutulakis, aren’t happy with what they see as a lack of open dialogue regarding the potenial for important changes at the law school. It raises serious doubts about the university’s sincerity in the wake of promises for transparency, Kutulakis said.
“It’s time for full disclosure and clarity on what’s really going on,” Kutulakis said.
He said he suspects Penn State seeks to use money saved in law school cuts toward a $60 million fine imposed by the NCAA and other costs associated with the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Powers said that the university will use athletics reserve money and capital maintenance funds and, if needed, will borrow money through an internal bond issue to cover the NCAA fine.
If Penn State moves forward on changes that violate its two-campus agreement, it wasn’t clear what, if any, type of sanctions the school might face.
Steve Aichele, Gov. Tom Corbett’s chief of staff, did not respond to a phone message Tuesday. Questions e-mailed Tuesday morning to the governor’s communications office were not answered.
The state grant is administered by the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority. Authority Executive Director Ben Laudermilch said the university recently requested the last large draw of $2.5 million, leaving $625,000 in the account. That money will remain under county control until an audit of the project is completed next year, Laudermilch said.