Penn State University responded fast and furious Wednesday to a published story alleging that it would do away with the Dickinson School of Law's two-campus operation by moving programs from Carlisle to State College.
The story, which was published in the Harrisburg Patriot-News on Wednesday, stated that the move would threaten the Law School’s accreditation.
The story cited what the newspaper said was a secret internal memo it had obtained, a memo that outlined measures to “do away with” the Carlisle school.
“The notion that the Law School’s accreditation is threatened under any of the operating adjustments under consideration is pure fabrication,” Ellen Foreman, a school spokeswoman, told The Sentinel on Wednesday.
“These discussions (that were reported in the Patriot-News) certainly were not secret as they were held with faculty, staff, and our very dedicated alumni who serve on our board of counselors,” Foreman said.
Furthermore, Carlisle officials on Wednesday said they have not been told anything about a potential pull-out by the law school and, if that option were on the table, Penn State would at least be obliged to include borough officials in the discussion.
“They have not engaged the borough, so it wouldn’t be a good thing,” Carlisle Borough Council President Perry Heath said.
“Keep in mind that this would be a serious breach of a contract on behalf of Penn State University, who signed an agreement and received funding that states the two-campus system would be maintained until 2025,” said Carlisle Borough Council Vice President Tim Scott. “The last time I checked, it’s only 2012.”
PSU further responded to the Patriot-News story by posting emails on the law school’s website that the school said were between the newspaper and Law School Dean Philip McConnaughay.
Information about PSU’s alleged plans in the Patriot-News story included:
• An option eliminating the program for first-year students in Carlisle. Those students would attend classes only in State College, and the option would require a waiver from the advisory board.
• Another option would require all students to spend one semester or longer in State College, where as students now can elect to study at either campus.
• Thirdly, that McConnaughay was expected to ask the law school advisory board last week for a contract waiver to permit elimination of the first-year program in Carlisle
Comments to the Patriot-News from the dean an email exchange posted on the school’s website include:
• “The downturn in (Juris Doctorate) applications and J.D students is a national phenomenon, affecting all law schools, not just PSU and certainly not just Carlisle.
• “We are enlarging the scope of our high quality educational programs other than J.D legal education, such as our (Master of Laws) program and shorter term professional education programs for U.S. and foreign judges, lawyers and other professionals.”
• “Carlisle is likely to be the principal location of many of these efforts, just as it is the location in which we currently are expanding our international affairs curriculum.”
• “So, even though Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, like many other top law schools across the nation, is reducing the size of our J.D program and population in response to national trends, we are increasing the size and role of other law school educational programs, including in Carlisle.”
• “It would be false to portray this change in the mix of our activities as anything other than strengthening The Dickinson School of Law, including in Carlisle.”
• “None of the options under consideration – and there are more than two, as (the Patriot-News) seem to assume – contemplate not maintaining a vibrant and substantial law school campus in Carlisle. Most of the options, in fact, contemplate a more robust mix of legal education programs in Carlisle.”
In another email, the dean appears to suspect that the newspaper was only seeking headlines.
“The only real ‘big news,’ to use (the newspaper’s) phrase, in the possibility of consolidating certain aspects of our J.D. program at one campus or the other, is that a degree of consolidation would help free-up law school resources and personnel currently dedicated to duplicated aspects of our J.D. program and enable us to devote them instead to other high quality legal education programs, such as professional and international education, that would generate revenue and hopefully help save jobs at both of our campuses that otherwise would be threatened by declining J.D. tuition revenues,” the dean said in an email.
Patriot-News city editor Ron Southwick told The Sentinel Wednesday that the newspaper plans to run a correction on the front page of Thursday’s edition.
“We feel the bulk of the story is accurate. There is a memo that describes a couple of options which people have concerns about,” Southwick said. “There were a couple of mistakes that we made. For example, the memo we obtained does not say that they would do away with the Carlisle campus. There was also mention in the story about the school losing its accreditation, which is a minor mistake.”
Southwick said the newspaper usually runs corrections inside but is taking the less common step of correcting the mistakes, which he said were unintentional, on the front page with a feature story.
“We will continue to follow this story because it’s an important one and there are people who have concerns about it and what it can mean,” Southwick said.
The newspaper’s story led to some local criticism of PSU during a time when the university is still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case and the fallout from major academic and financial sanctions levied by the NCAA because of the Sandusky scandal.
Carlisle Mayor Bill Kronenberg deeply criticized the school because of the report.
“The situation is as embarrassing as it is ridiculous that they’d even consider this,” Kronenberg told The Sentinel before learning that PSU said the Patriot-News report was inaccurate. “Penn State is trying to renege on a contract, and we will do whatever is at our disposal legally to stop them.”
Others, including the borough’s new business manager Matthew Candland, spent Wednesday morning contemplating possible financial and cultural impacts the loss of the law school might have on Carlisle.
“I’m sure the ramifications would be great,” Candland said.
Also, in the wake of the story, state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-199, sent a letter to PSU President Rodney Erickson, McConnaughay, members of the Dickinson School of Law Alumni Board of Counselors and the Penn State University Board of Trustees requesting a comprehensive report of any plans that would impact the Carlisle law school campus.
“The pursuit of any such plans, were they to exist, would violate the letter and spirit of the arrangements (including state-grant conditions) agreed upon for the maintenance of fully accredited dual law school campuses,” Bloom said in his letter. “Further, if Penn State were even considering plans of the nature alleged without full ongoing public disclosure and discussion, it would be nothing less than shocking, especially in light of the Sandusky disaster in which the previously insular and secretive nature of Penn State’s administrative culture was tragically exposed.”