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DSL's fate still a game of chess

By Carol Talley
The Sentinel
October 17, 2004

If you want straight talk about what's going on in the latest twist of the Penn State Dickinson School of Law story, Dickinson College President Bill Durden stands alone in offering it.

It became clearer at Friday's board of governors meeting that Penn State approached the college in Carlisle about possibly taking the law school off its hands.

Now, Durden has come before the board and ticked off his positions:

Durden didn't waffle at any point that I can tell ... even in informing the board his own institution had been drifting when he came on board and refocused its direction toward offering a global education.

As a result, Dickinson College has gone up in the rankings of liberal arts schools. And Durden said that won't be risked.

Some board members expressed surprise at his bluntness. But some nodded as he talked, as though appreciative of his candor. They've seen little of that from Penn State.

However, the board is in a tangle of confusion at this point, not knowing where it stands in the dealing going on around it or whether it has any standing at all. So, allusions to being "the bartered bride" and being in a marriage in need of a marriage counselor became part of the meeting byplay.

Some members want Penn State to live up to the merger; others want a Dickinson College merger in its place. The majority, however, agree they want a place at the bargaining table ... if one is called to order.

As for Penn State, it has set up this entire play in the hope that it will be more successful than the ones being called on its football field these days.

But what spells success in the eyes of the university administration that created this brouhaha by attempting to pick up the law school and move it out of Carlisle despite a promise to maintain it in the community "in perpetuity?"

The hitch, of course, was that only the board of governors could break the "in perpetuity" clause. They finally chose not to do so partially based on a now-disputed conversation between Penn State President Graham Spanier and Lewis Katz, a member of the board of governors.

Katz reported that Spanier was "on board" with a proposal for the law school to stay in Carlisle if money could be raised to update the facility. At the time, Katz even offered to lead the charge.

From what I hear, that conversation now is called a miscommunication. And a month after the negative vote to have two campuses for the law school which was the second Penn State proposal Spanier excoriated this community and The Sentinel at his board of trustees meeting. On the same day, it was announced that Dickinson College was approached.

Whoa! There's nothing straightforward here. That's not Spanier's forte.

Is it a ploy to bring the board of governors to its knees and push it to hold another vote for two campuses?

Spanier has pretty much accused this entire community of lying. That doesn't sound like someone who plans to do business in Carlisle and Cumberland County in the future. Besides, that Spanier plan meant dumping the merger agreement and the law school board.

Is it gamesmanship to again try to get the law school moved out of town?

Could be, especially when you figure that's been the goal since day one of this fiasco, in which so-called confidential memos were supposed to lead to secret decisions without any community involvement. But that likely would mean a change in the agreement and also make the law school board useless.

Somehow it's difficult to believe Spanier's overall goal has changed. I'd say he still wants a law school on his terms at University Park in State College by hook or by crook.

If sincere in wanting to get rid of this particular law school, he's plotting to start one or make a deal with someone else.

As for Dickinson College, it has direction and momentum, but the competitive factor of Penn State starting another law school has to be weighed for the long run.

I'd choose Durden over Spanier in an instant if the choice is really offered. Durden isn't pulling his punches or creating elaborate but nebulous schemes.

But we're all still in the middle of the swamp with crocodiles all around and visibility nil.

And whether Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle can get out without being eaten alive remains to be seen.