Penn State to divide into two separate law schools

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After a failed effort to get approval to cease operating a first year program at its Carlisle, Penn. campus, Penn State University Dickinson School of Law is now moving forward with plans to separate its two campuses as separately accredited law schools by 2015.

“This is a disappointing but understandable outcome,” said Philip McConnaughay, dean of the law school. “This will result in Carlisle having an admissions strategy and mission different from the State College campus.”

Penn State took over Carlisle-based Dickinson School of Law, a private school, in 2000. It planned to move the law school to State College but ran into opposition in 2005. Instead, it opened its State College campus in 2006 and has operated the two campuses as one single entity since then. It opened a new $60 million facility on Penn State’s main campus in 2009. In 2008, it received a $25 million grant from the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority to upgrade the Carlisle campus, but with the caveat that first-, second- and third-year programs would remain in the state capitol. 

But the recent decline in applications and enrollment forced the law school to reconsider that arrangement. The law school expects enrollment to drop from more than 600 down to 500 students, resulting in the loss of $6 million in revenue.

McConnaughay said the faculty had pushed to shift all first-year students to State College in order to consolidate and save expenses. It would then have expanded upper level courses, and added dual degree and foreign lawyer programs in Carlisle.

But the school needed approval from the Cumberland County commissioners to discontinue offering the first-year program, pursuant to the 2008 grant.

“I think there was a misperception that if you take away the 1L population, you take away the law student population. There would be no incentive to transfer to Carlisle” McConnaughay said. “That is a mistake in perception. We believe we would have increased the total number of students in Carlisle.”

McConnaughay said that since that plan was not approved, the faculty felt it was best to let Carlisle focus on being a more regional law school with more relaxed admissions standards, while State College will focus on being a national law school. That will require the schools to operate as different institutions.

“Both will be strong and vibrant schools, but different.” McConnaughay said. “The constituencies that wants to see all three classes in Carlisle, also want to have a more regional focus.”

McConnaughay said the two campuses will be financially independent, but both units of Penn State University. He is now in the process of talking with the ABA about how to approach the transition.

He is unsure if Penn State will follow Widener University’s model, which has two campuses, one in Carlisle and one in Wilmington, Del., or Rutgers model. The two Rutgers campuses are completely independent with separate accreditation. Widener files separate data sheets with the ABA for its campuses, but has common leadership.

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