No One Knows What Penn State Law’s ‘Unification’ Even Means, But Closing University Park Seems Like A Bad Idea

(via Penn State Law homepage)

It’s been a couple weeks since Penn State casually and without warning threw both of its law schools into chaos.

PSU President Neeli Bendapudi announced to a stunned audience that she plans to “combine” the two law schools in the university system, Penn State Law at University Park and Penn State Dickinson Law at Carlisle. But combine into what? One law school with two campuses? One law school in Carlisle?

Bendapudi’s office spun the news as turning two good law schools into “one excellent one” but since that’s not how math works, no one really bought it. In fact, it’s unclear if the ABA would even buy trying to shift the accreditation around. And since Bendapudi left the meeting within 10 minutes of the announcement, there’s still no clear sense of what’s going on.

Which was all particularly callous considering the announcement dropped on the cusp of finals, leaving a massive distraction hanging over students at both schools. Just atrocious leadership. Anyway, finals conclude this afternoon, so it’s time we get back into this story in earnest!

Earlier this week, faculty at Penn State’s University Park campus, issued a statement laying out the case for the law school’s continued value to the university’s main campus — either as a separate law school or a part of a single two-campus system.

Since its inception in 2006, the law school at Penn State’s University Park campus has gained an international reputation with students and prospective employers and has graduated more than 2,500 students. Those alumni are strong supporters of Penn State Law and are now partners in some of the nation’s largest law firms, legal counsel for some of the nation’s largest corporations, and legal counsel for local, state, and federal government agencies and non-profit corporations.

From the bean-counting perspective — and despite all the “one excellent” law school talk, this whole proposal has the feel of a half-baked attempt to shave costs — the university probably assumes that those 2500 influential students will just see themselves as graduates of the new school going forward. Even if that new school is really a completely different school founded in 1834 that those graduates never had anything to do with except for sharing a logo. Maybe that will work, but it’s presumptuous.

The letter also highlights the University Park school’s robust international law student program with around 150 students every year and the many interdisciplinary students pursuing joint degrees. Both populations head to University Park to take advantage of the massive Research 1 university down the block and have little interest in decamping to a 20,000-person agricultural town with an unaffiliated undergrad liberal arts school and the Army War College to keep them company.

Not to mention the faculty with interdisciplinary pursuits cross-posted or at least collaborating with the medical school or the criminal justice faculty. Without a University Park campus, they are going to look elsewhere and maybe that saves money but at the expense of a reputational hit that’s not going to help the “one excellent one” narrative.

We recognize that there is a cost to having law schools in two locations, but given the development of Penn State’s two law schools, it has been proven that both have added value and have provided benefits to Penn State and their respective communities.

It’s not like students aren’t paying tuition. If the schools are burning a hole in the university budget, the biggest reason is probably paying off the ultra-modern Jawa Sandcrawler law school building that the school built in University Park. But if the school closes that campus, it’s not like it magically gets that money back.

We are confident that once the panel created by President Bendapudi has reviewed all the data, it will likewise see the tremendous value in the unified law school continuing to have a significant presence in University Park.

Yes… what is this “panel” going to look like? At the initial announcement, the panel was said to “include representation from students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Penn State Dickinson Law and Penn State Law,” but no one knows what any of that actually means. And once the university clears the hurdle of determining who gets to be on this panel, exactly what is it empowered to do? Can it stop the merger or is this just an exercise rearranging Lido Deck seating after the iceberg? If this panel is just throwing some figureheads together to spit out a report confirming how GENIUS it would be to close up and memory hole the main campus school, then it’s not really all that useful.

Because the faculty signing this letter have made some great points… maybe we should pick the panel right off this list!

Full letter on the next page…

Earlier: Law School Merger Announcement Shocks Students

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.