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PSU wants law school decision on plan now

August 13, 2004
Patriot-News Carlisle Bureau

CARLISLE - Penn State University said it is done haggling with The Dickinson School of Law's board of governors over a proposal to build a second law campus at State College.

In a letter Penn State Vice President and Provost Rodney Erickson sent to the board Wednesday, the message is clear and uncompromising: If the board backs the two-campus plan, it must agree to PSU's terms. A vote calling for more talk will be deemed a rejection of the plan.

The letter didn't say what Penn State would do if its proposal is rejected.

But Penn State trustee Dennis Wolff said yesterday that Penn State is not planning to cut ties with the law school. "That's never been discussed," said Wolff, who is Pennsylvania's agriculture secretary.

A Dickinson board committee studying the proposal appeared to be leaning toward the two-campus concept. However, the committee had recommended that the full board, when it meets today, delay a decision and demand better terms from Penn State. It said it would insist that the campuses be equal and that Carlisle remain open forever.

No amount of discussion or time will reverse the university's stance, Erickson said in his letter.

A vote to wait or renegotiate would "constitute a rejection of the proposal and the university would consider it as such," he said.

Erickson said Penn State's offer to build a $60 million law school at State College and contribute to a $25 million upgrade of Trickett Hall in Carlisle rivals any project the university has ever taken on.

For that kind of money, Penn State's trustees must have the power to close the Carlisle campus if it can't survive academically or financially, Erickson said.

Erickson's statement stunned board members.

Dickinson board Chairman LeRoy Zimmerman said he was "surprised and disappointed that the university would interpret our actions ... as a rejection. It was certainly not intended to be that."

Some wondered if Penn State was serious about pursuing the two-campus plan in the first place.

Member Jason Kutulakis said that when Penn State suggested last fall that the law school should be moved to State College, the university pushed that plan with "intense dialogue and pressure to talk and negotiate."

Penn State President Graham Spanier withdrew that proposal in June after vocal public dissent and presented the two-campus idea. He insisted the board give him a decision by Sunday.

"They pursued [the two-campus plan] for less than two months and then pulled the carpet out when the board said 'We want to study it,'" Kutulakis said.

Board members and members of the law school's alumni association began an analysis of the two-campus proposal. Some of their findings didn't mesh with Penn State's.

Penn State argued that operating the law school in State College could boost admissions and Dickinson's national rankings because law students and professors could develop specialties by interacting with other university departments.

The alumni association's report said law students already interact with academic departments at Penn State's Harrisburg campus. It said that American Bar Association rules limit the number of teleconference classes. Penn State cited teleconferencing as an advantage of the two-campus plan.

The alumni also dispute Penn State's contention that a move to University Park would boost rankings.

A university spokesman wouldn't elaborate on Erickson's statement and wouldn't say what Penn State's next step might be.

"I don't think we want to speculate on what will happen. We'll see where we go" after the board meets today, said Bill Mahon, director of public information.

Erickson will attend the 10 a.m. meeting in Trickett Hall on the law school campus in Carlisle, Mahon said.

Dickinson Dean Philip McConnaughay's spokeswoman said he wouldn't comment until after the meeting.