“Tradition is important,” then-president Graham Spanier said in 2004 when announcing Penn State’s dual-campus merger with the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle. “Penn State will remain particularly sensitive to the pledge of being a good neighbor to the people of Carlisle and a good steward of the Dickinson reputation that thousands of people have spent so many years establishing.”
The merger was mutually beneficial at the time; Penn State gained a formidable law school with great tradition and relationships in Harrisburg, and Dickinson at Carlisle suddenly had access to Penn State’s vast academic resources and funding. And besides, starting a new law school in a state with eight already in existence is extremely difficult, as Penn State found out in 2000. The Dickinson name would prove to be essential in the growth of the law school over the last 15 years.
That relationship comes to an end today — or at least a modification — as the Council of the American Bar Association’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar (ABA) approved the University’s request to operate two independent and fully accredited law schools. Essentially, Penn State now has two law schools instead of one law school at two campuses.
“The full approval of the ABA for operation as two law schools begins the next chapter of The Dickinson School of Law,” said Provost Nicholas Jones. “We believe that two law schools operating independently can more flexibly respond to the needs of law students entering a rapidly changing legal profession. Penn State is offering two quality alternatives to prospective students, who can gain an extraordinary law school experience and education, and stand out in the marketplace for those qualities.”
Degrees from both schools will still have The Dickinson School of Law of The Pennsylvania State University but will also reflect the independent and separately accredited status. The Fall 2015 1-L class — the first class admitted and recruited separately — will be the first affected by the decision, and current students will still operate under the unified system. Each school will have separate deans and separate administrations.
Separate and independent is an interesting concept for a university that, at least publicly, preaches at a parodic level the “one university geographically dispersed” mantra when talking about the quality of the Commonwealth campuses compared to University Park (the implication of anything less than equal across the board is a mortal sin). It is inevitable that there will be some gap, however significant, in the coveted law school rankings between Penn State Law and the happens-to-be-affiliated-with-Penn-State Dickinson. But as Penn State Law grew at University Park, the utility of Dickinson and a dual-campus law school wore off.
As the second highest ranked law school in Pennsylvania, it was probably time.