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Penn State wins law school vote

By David Blymire, Sentinel Reporter
January 15, 2004

Following nearly five hours of impassioned debate, Dickinson School of Law's board of governors on Saturday voted narrowly to give Penn State University "unfettered" control of the law school no later than Aug. 1.

The board's 17-14 vote authorizes the board and Penn State to work out a final agreement for a two-campus law school that the board will be asked to ratify at a future board meeting.

If approved, it will effectively dissolve the board of governors and the law school's 1997 merger with Penn State by Aug. 1.

Gov. Ed Rendell can block the agreement, however, by withholding state money earmarked for the Carlisle campus.

The agreement included Penn State's offer to wipe the new agreement off the boards if Rendell does not come through with $25 million in state funds for new construction at Trickett Hall in Carlisle.

J. Michael Eakin, an associate justice on the state Supreme Court and former district attorney of Cumberland County, made the motion to accept the new terms.

Carlisle lawyer Dale Shughart supported the new proposal, saying that "we decided in 1997 that we could not operate a law school when we gave it to Penn State."

Under the new agreement, Penn State commits to keeping the Carlisle campus open for 10 years from June 30.

Opponents, however, argued vehemently that Penn State can close the Carlisle campus and sell the facilities -- which it got for nothing through the merger -- and walk off with a handsome profit at the end of 10 years.

Board member Joan Maher argued that Penn State really wanted more than simply to open a new campus all along -- it wanted Dickinson's accreditation so it could open its own law school in State College.

"It is clear to me that Dickinson is doomed," she said.

Dickinson Law School Okays Penn State's Plan for Two Campuses

The Dickinson School of Law would become a two-campus school under a Penn State University proposal the law school's board of governors accepted Saturday, but only if the school receives state money for new construction at its current Carlisle campus.

Under the proposal, which still needs final approval by the board and university trustees, Penn State promised to keep the Carlisle campus open for 10 years - but made no promises beyond that - while establishing a second campus on the main Penn State campus in State College.

The law school board debated for five hours before voting 17-14 to accept the Penn State proposal. Opponents said they feared Penn State would close the Carlisle campus.

Board member Joan Maher argued that Penn State really only wanted Dickinson's accreditation so it could open its own law school. Penn State officials, however, said they plan to keep the law school in Carlisle well beyond the 10 years called for in the agreement.

"I'm absolutely delighted that we have finally reached this point," said Penn State president Graham Spanier, who said Dickinson will be among the country's largest law schools. "I think it will prove to be one of the major developments in legal education."

"It's discouraging. I think the board was bulldozed, intimidated," said state Rep. Will Gabig, R-Carlisle. "There hasn't even been a demonstration ... that Pennsylvania needs a new law school."

H. Laddie Montague Jr., chairman of the law school board said he hopes that a final agreement will be drafted in about two weeks, and another meeting will follow.

"I think as things progress there will be more harmony," Montague said.

The proposal would give Penn State "unfettered" control of the law school by Aug. 1. But Penn State agreed that the plan would be invalidated if Gov. Ed Rendell failed to provide $25 million in state funds for new construction at Trickett Hall on the Carlisle campus.

Established in 1834, Dickinson has been largely under Penn State's control since a merger between the two schools in 2000. Penn State was one of only two Big 10 universities without a law school, and Dickinson, the state's oldest law school, was struggling to survive in an increasingly competitive higher education market.

Under the merger, Penn State and its board of trustees oversee the Dickinson School of Law's day-to-day operations, from hiring faculty to approving new courses. The law school's board of governors has an advisory role but retained authority over the law school's name and location.

In the autumn of 2003, law school Dean Philip J. McConnaughay proposed closing the Carlisle campus, saying relocation to State College would improve the law school's reputation and provide more joint-degree programs with Penn State. After major opposition in Carlisle to the loss of the law school, the board voted in June to study a two-campus option recommended by Penn State President Graham B. Spanier.