Gov. Tom Ridge,
an alumnus of The Dickinson School of Law, was a speaker at the school's
May 26 commencement where 172 students received degrees. A brief ceremony
heralding the June 30 completion of the merger with Penn State was also
By Lisa M. Rosellini
Three years ago, The Dickinson School of Law took a gamble when it agreed to merge with Penn State -- shedding its distinction as the oldest independent law school in the nation. That gamble has paid off for Dickinson, now seen as one of the hottest law schools in the country, and for Penn State, whose leaders say it is now a more complete university.
At the end of the month, the three-year merger process that began in 1997 will become final as The Dickinson School of Law officially joins the University system -- a union that many in the legal education field point to as a stellar example of a graceful merge.
"This is truly a success story," said University President Graham B. Spanier, who has fielded queries from other independent law schools seeking advice on how to smoothly merge their operations with an outside institution. "Exciting opportunities have come about because of this partnership. In fact, we have been delighted with the opportunities for collaborative research, teaching and service."
Spanier said Penn State felt a definite void without a law school. It was one of only two Big Ten institutions without one.
"It was very apparent from the beginning that our cultures and goals for our students were the same," said Dickinson's Dean Peter Glenn. "It was a natural fit and it feels pretty good to be on the eve of accomplishing the merger because I believe strongly that it's good for both institutions and particularly for the students and alumni. When I look back, this will be the thing I remember most about my tenure as dean. It's been awfully intense."
Glenn, dean of Dickinson since 1994, said law schools across the country were experiencing a "severe fall off" in demand in the early 1990s. Tight competition for the best and brightest students made admissions a game of chance, but the decision to wed a Big Ten institution has shifted the odds in Dickinson's favor.
Since the merger, Dickinson law school officials have watched an unprecedented jump in applications. In the last year alone, the number of students seeking admission to the law school has surged 36 percent, making Dickinson one of only 11 law schools from a field of 180 in the nation to have a more than 30 percent increase in the number of students applying. The increase in applications for law schools nationally, considered as a whole, is somewhere between 2 percent and 3 percent, according to Glenn.
"I think everyone here at Dickinson is in agreement that the name recognition that Penn State has nationwide is what is behind the increase in the volume of applications we have received," said Barbara Guillaume, admissions officer at the law school. "But it's not just the numbers that have been impressive, it's the areas of the country we are now pulling from and the exceptional quality of the applicants we are seeing."
President Spanier has called the law school's admissions numbers "phenomenal" and said the reputation of both institutions -- now combined into one -- is a powerful draw for prospective students.
Christine Kellett, professor of law at Dickinson, said the Penn State name is also attracting more potential faculty who want to be associated with a Big Ten law school.
Kellett, who was associate dean for institutional planning at the law school during the merger talks, admits there were "angst and sleepless nights" for her as she pondered how others who weren't as intimately involved with legal education would view the union of the 530-student law school with a state-related institution whose enrollment topped 78,000 statewide and whose budget was nearly $2 billion.
"Merging big with small, private with public ... those are big hurdles," Kellett said. "But the more we talked, the more we realized just how much Penn State and Dickinson School of Law had in common. From the beginning, everyone has said that this was going to work -- and it is. We have similar cultures and we care about good teaching, good alumni relations and the success of our graduates. That's why this has been a good fit."
As a graduate of The Dickinson School of Law herself and a teacher there for 24 years, Kellett knew some alumni might be disappointed in the merger, but she also knew that Dickinson needed to make a change in order to keep up with shifts in legal education and the rapid transformation of the profession as a result of technology.
As provost of Penn State at the time and heavily involved in the merger negotiations, John A. Brighton said Dickinson officials had a healthy skepticism about the partnership, which allowed them to view it from many angles and weigh the loss of their independent status against the benefits of belonging to a large institution with many more resources -- like library holdings and research opportunities.
The merger will bring a change in the governance of Dickinson on July 1, when its 37-member board of trustees will no longer govern the school, but will serve in an advisory capacity.
On the fund-raising side, Dickinson also has experienced an extraordinary increase in private giving. Part of Penn State's overall Grand Destiny Campaign, the law school has raised $9.5 million in private funds over the last three years -- that's more than the amount raised in the 166-year history of the law school, according to Glenn.
"There is no such thing as remaining the same. You are always changing and if you're going to change, you need to plan and bring about the best change," Kellett said. "Some alumni at the time were disappointed, but we also heard from others who thought the merger was the greatest thing that could have happened to the law school. There wasn't 100 percent approval, but the approval was overwhelming. Most of the initial dissenters have come around and have come to realize there are greater opportunities now than ever before."
H. Jesse Arnelle, an alumnus of both Penn State and The Dickinson School of Law, agreed and said the future graduates of the law school will not only have Penn State emblazoned on their diplomas, but also will have benefited from an expanded curriculum.
"Law is an overlay to other disciplines," said Arnelle, who was president of Penn State's Board of Trustees when the merger began. "There are many options available and collaborations possible."
Already there are seven joint degree programs in place between the two entities, including a juris doctorate and MBA offering; a joint J.D. and master's degree in public administration; and a juris doctor/master's degree offered in three different areas of environmental pollution control. In addition, the day after the merger was announced, the two institutions began putting together an Agricultural Law Research & Education Center. The center, a joint undertaking of the law school and Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, is overseen by Kellett. It works closely with the University's Cooperative Extension network and provides education, resources and information on law and regulatory topics for agricultural producers, agribusiness organizations and other professionals, such as government officials, lawyers, accountants and financial planners.
Through the merger, Dickinson was able to access Penn State's expertise in a number of other areas, particularly technology. The law school has expanded its technological capabilities and increased the number of computers on campus. Before 1997, the ratio of students to computers was 12 to one. Now the ratio is five students to one computer.
Dean Glenn said his school entered the merger with the hopes of accomplishing four critical tasks: 1) improving the school's attractiveness to potential students; 2) improving its technological capabilities; 3) expanding opportunities for interdisciplinary education; and 4) accomplishing some economies of scale. It is this last area where Glenn has met some stumbling blocks.
"Meshing our systems has not been as smooth as we would have hoped and what we are finding in some cases is that we can't merge everything," Glenn said. "We have not realized all of the savings that we had hoped to from affiliating with a larger university, but all of these things are still in process. We have access to a wider and deeper range of expertise in a number of areas."
Kellett said life at the law school has changed a bit for faculty there since the merger. Now part of a state-related institution, the call for public service is greater. In addition, Dickinson law school's 100 full-time faculty and staff, part of an intimate campus community, were used to doing things informally -- few forms to fill out and few people to carbon copy on memos.
"It's been a good trade off and the advantages far, far outweigh any disadvantages," Glenn said. "We have to deal with a more complex and business-like process for accomplishing things, but my experience teaches me that this is the price you pay for being part of a large, high-quality institution. And that price is small.
"It's hard to find any negatives," Glenn said. "A lot has happened in three years. We are developing a stronger sense of belonging to the greater University and as word gets out that we are Penn State, I think we'll see more of the same."
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