Penn State's decision to split its dual-campus Dickinson School of Law school into two independent entities has been cheered as a victory for the historic Carlisle campus. But its supporters would be wise to temper the celebration and prepare for the long haul.
Dean Philip McConnaughay riled a lot of people when he proposed requiring all first-year law students to enroll at University Park. The idea was dropped, and he now says Carlisle will be decoupled instead. Carlisle would return to its tradition of educating lawyers for private practice and regional needs, while University Park would have "a more national and international focus."
He stopped short of saying it, but the implication is clear: University Park would attract top-tier applicants, Carlisle not so much — especially since he suggests that admissions standards at Carlisle could be lowered to expand enrollment.
So two questions hang in the air now: Is this another attempt to shed Carlisle? And will the independent plan be any better for Carlisle than the dual-campus arrangement?
We think the answers are, respectively, "probably" and a qualified "maybe."
After more than a decade, Penn State has yet to garner the results it sought in acquiring the law school. It is losing millions annually, McConnaughay says. And the hope that the university's resources combined with Dickinson's strong regional reputation would move a Penn State law school up in the national rankings hasn't materialized. Meanwhile, Penn State now has a multimillion investment in its University Park law school operation and Carlisle enrollment is down. As a pure dollars-and-sense business decision, pulling the plug on Carlisle seems to make sense — especially when the law is not as attractive a career as it once was.
However, the opportunity to stand on its own could allow Carlisle to thrive again. Both geography and history are in its favor. Its strong alumni cohort and its proximity to the state capital and other cities give its students unique opportunities to blend class work with real-world experience in law firms and government. Moreover, having a clear identity in a stable niche should help with recruitment.
What happens next will depend, in large part, on that same group of people who have fought so long and hard to keep Carlisle from being swallowed up. We trust they will continue to scrutinize Penn State's management and support Carlisle's students and graduates.
The tight-knit Dickinson law school community may be the greatest asset of an institution that itself has been an asset to the midstate for more than 175 years.