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Carlisle Fights for Law School

Residents, law students and government officials are vowing to do all they can to keep Penn State's Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle after news of a proposal to move the 169-year-old school to State College was made public.

A confidential memo, in which the dean of the law school, Philip McConnaughay, recommended moving the school to Penn State's main campus within five years, was leaked to the media Wednesday.

In the memo, McConnaughay cited a lack of space for expansion in Carlisle and concerns about the law school's "languishing reputation." In a recent edition of U.S. News & World Report, Dickinson was ranked as a third-tier law school.

The final decision of whether to move rests with the law school's board of governors.

The magnitude of that decision is still settling in with those in the borough who have come to depend on stu-

dent dollars for their livelihood.

"It's very disappointing," said Fred Bean, Carlisle's borough manager. "We were crushed to hear this news."

Bean said the school is a vibrant thread in the fabric of Carlisle, a borough of about 20,000 people. He said he and other government officials plan to fight to keep the law school in town.

"This came as total surprise to us, but I seriously doubt we will be sitting idly by on this one," Bean said. "It's like losing a major industry, but it's so much more. There are jobs, a cultural history, alumni that come back to visit."

Penn State President Graham Spanier said a decision is not imminent. Published reports said the law school could relocate to University Park by the fall of 2008 if the proposal is approved. The law school's board of governors will meet Friday and Saturday and is slated to discuss the possible move.

G. Thomas Miller, a Harrisburg attorney who sits on the law school's board, said he opposes such a move. He said he was surprised when he received the memo because previous board discussions had centered on what to do with existing facilities.

"I never thought anything like this would happen," Miller said. "The discussion for the past six months was how to expand at the present locations and what designs could work."

Bean said the borough is economically stable and education is a strong component of that stability.

"We're a community of about five square miles, and we have Dickinson College, Dickinson Law and the Army War College," he said.

Dickinson School of Law has 646 students and an annual budget of more than $17 million. It is not affiliated with neighboring Dickinson College, a liberal arts school with about 2,200 students.

The once-independent law school, which bills itself as the oldest law school in Pennsylvania and the fifth oldest in the nation, completed its merger with Penn State in 2000.

Linda McGuire, executive director for the Downtown Carlisle Association, called the news of a possible move "a huge blow" and said she hopes the law school and Penn State can work out a way to keep the school in the borough.

"Downtown began going through a renaissance since 1999," she said. "It's going to hurt. There's the economic impact from students and professors (taking dollars elsewhere), but it won't derail the movement by any means. We have a great downtown; we want to make it fabulous. They need to stick around to be a part of it."

According to the memo by McConnaughay, the law school has had difficulty raising enough money to finance an expansion at the Carlisle campus. A six-year campaign to raise $16 million yielded only $9 million.

In the memo, according to reports, McConnaughay said Penn State is prepared to pick up the cost of a more than $60 million facility on Penn State's main campus if a design is completed within a year.

Chris Petsinis, owner of the North Hanover Grille in Carlisle's historic district, said the borough's economy would suffer, though not fatally, if the law school were to leave.

He wondered if moving is really the answer.

"When you look at $60 million, that's nice new desks, bigger hallways, a state-of-the-art facility, and that's nice. But you're also pulling people out of a job market (opportunities in Harrisburg and Washington), taking them away from possibly boosting their (rankings)," he said. "It doesn't make any sense to build a new school when they can't raise their rankings. There are a lot of problems going on there that have nothing to do with elbow room."

Students at the law school appeared no more happy with the idea of relocating to State College than did Carlisle officials.

First-year student Jessica Bowman said the campus is perfectly settled and allows students to gain job experience at local law offices, as well as in Harrisburg and Washington.

"All the qualities that made the school stand out for students here and in the future will go by the wayside (if it moves). Faculty will be stretched out," said Bowman, who commutes 30 minutes to class every day from East Berlin.

"The part I don't like is the sneakiness that's taking place to try to push it through," she said. "If it moves, I won't donate a penny."

Bowman may have a point. The bar associations located in Dauphin and Cumberland counties claim a total of more than 1,700 members. The Centre County Bar Association has about 180 members, according to its Web site.

Bowman's concern was shared by fellow first-year student Tim Wachter, of Erie.

"I'm ticked off by the news," he said. "Why would someone apply if they know they will have to pick up and move? Why would someone hire a student who boasts about their externship when our chief spokesman is bashing the program?"

Second-year student Brad Meyer, from Cleveland, said being in Carlisle is better.

"It has less distractions," he said. "It's a good move overall, but it presents problems for students being on a college campus instead of being secluded in Carlisle."

However, Zach Bloom, a second-year student from Haverford, said the move is probably "inevitable."

"Dickinson has to move to grow," he said. "Penn State merged with them to get a law school, and you can't be a top-tier law school in Carlisle."