Penn State law school dean leaves mixed legacy in Carlisle

Philip J. McConnaughay, now bound for China, has carved out an impressive list of achievements as dean of Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

But around the historic home of the once-independent school, McConnaughay’s departure is being greeted with as much relief as sadness, and a chance to reset a sometimes tense partnership with Penn State.

McConnaughay said Thursday that he is leaving, effective Aug. 1, to become dean of the Peking University School of Transnational Law, based in Shenzhen.

There he will lead a school that seeks to fill a growing need for attorneys in China and offers graduate programs aimed at helping foreign attorneys do business there.

His 11-year tenure at Dickinson was touted by Penn State leaders Thursday as a time of growth for the law school as a whole, with the addition of state-of-the art facilities in Carlisle and State College, advanced technology to link them, and steady improvement in the quality and diversity of the student body.

Penn State President Rodney Erickson called McConnaughay an innovator who “can take great pride in all that has been accomplished under his watch.”

The positives are offset in Carlisle and with many Dickinson alumni by strongly held views that McConnaughay on multiple occasions bent university commitments to stay in Carlisle:

In 2003 it was McConnaughay who proposed moving the Carlisle-based law school to State College, just six years after Spanier and other university leaders had said the law school would remain in Carlisle “in perpetuity.” The dean raised the idea after seeing a capital campaign fall short of its targets and the school sliding in academic rankings. That proposal triggered a lengthy battle with alumni and the Rendell Administration that resulted in the current dual campus approach.

Last year, McConnaughay reopened the old wounds by proposing — as part of a response to declining law school applications nationally — to shrink first-year law classes and consolidate them at State College. The proposal was seen in some quarters as a new death knell for the Carlisle campus, already the smaller of the two law campuses.

Again, this came just four years after the university’s top leaders had signed contracts committing it to operate a three-year law program in Carlisle through at least 2020.

After receiving substantial pushback last fall, McConnaughay embarked on a new plan to seek separate accreditations for the Carlisle and State College law campuses, which would then continue to operate independently of each other.

The dean’s positions were perfectly legitimate when seen through the filter of a forward-looking administrator seeking the best for his school.

But Dickinson had a past, and Penn State — which had no law school prior to its original 1997 merger with the Carlisle school — had made promises.

As a result, some here could never shake the belief that McConnaughay pursued a State College-first mentality in running the law school from programming to student recruitment to hiring new faculty.

“There has been a trust issue with the dean, and it had to do with Penn State’s willingness to live up to its agreements,” said Chris Gulotta, a alum who helped structure agreements that allowed $25 million in state aid to flow to renovations at Carlisle as the former executive director of the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority.

“I think this [change] will be very helpful because we will have a fresh perspective from Penn State’s vantage point… and maybe some different approaches for helping the Carlisle campus achieve parity with the University Park campus,” Gulotta said.

“It’s a great law school whether you have Dean McConnaughay in there or not,” said Carlisle attorney Jason Kutalakis, a Dickinson alum and frequent McConnaughay critic.

“Hopefully, some of the tension and animosity we have experienced in the past 10 years will leave with his departure.”

Plan to sever unified law school into two institutions stays on course, Penn State officials say.

Erickson told Penn Live today that Penn State’s decision to pursue separate accreditations for each campus from the American Bar Association stays in place for now, even though the split may not be fully executed until 2014.

But others sense the transition period creates a new period of fluidity.

For example, members of the Dickinson Law Association, the alumni group that holds veto power over some aspects of the law school’s operations through 2015 as per the dual campus agreement, are known to be lobbying quietly for the preservation of a single Dickinson Law School.

“It’s my hope that his [McConnaughay’s] successor will continue with the unified, two-campus program as it is,” said DLA member and attorney Hubert X. Gilroy, arguing that Dickinson can grow stronger simply with better marketing of the respective campuses’ strengths.

McConnaughay, reached by phone while traveling Thursday, said he prepares for his next assignment with no regrets about the changes he helped spur.

Controversy in Carlisle, he added, was a necessary by-product of changing the mindset at Dickinson to allow the merger with Penn State to work.

He reiterated that Dickinson School of Law was losing ground in the battle for quality students and financial resources to raise its game at the time Penn State initiated merger talks.

“I think the law school would have continued to struggle [without establishing separate campuses],” McConnaughay said. “The merger wouldn’t have made sense without fully embracing the possibility it provided in integrating with one of the world’s great research universities.”




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