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The end of Dickinson?


Over the past few weeks, a number of people employed by and connected to Penn State’s law school have helped draw the following portrait of what’s going on there:

PSU’s law school is the brainchild of Graham Spanier, who early in his tenure at the university’s president decided that the university ought to have a law school, because prestige etc. At that time, Tom Ridge was Pennsylvania’s governor. Ridge is an alumnus of the Dickinson School of Law, a small private law school in Carlisle, which is the seventh-oldest law school in the country, having operated since the early 19th century. (It’s never been affiliated with Dickinson College, the well-regarded liberal arts college in the same town).

Spanier decided that the best way to advance this scheme was to convince Ridge to allow PSU to acquire Dickinson. Over the next few years complex political negotiations — in which Ed Rendell apparently played some role as well — eventually produced the following deal: The law school would become part of PSU, and a second campus for the school would open in State College, site of PSU’s flagship campus. PSU agreed to keep the Carlisle campus open until at least 2025, or 2020 if the university declared a financial exigency. The university committed to spending an enormous sum — about $130 million — on creating the new campus and updating the old one. Consequently, PSU built a $60 million law school building in State Park, which opened in 2009, and spent an additional $50 million on a new building and the upgrading of the existing physical plant at the Carlisle campus. The new Carlisle facilities were completed in 2010.

Spanier’s “vision” called for a law school with a typical first year enrollment of around 240 students, with two thirds of these in State College and the rest in Carlisle. This exercise in classic imperial administrative overstretch began to fall apart almost immediately. Predictably, the faculties of the law school’s two campuses didn’t get along. The State College faculty wanted to chase after rankings, which meant playing the academic prestige game, which in turn meant trying to hire faculty who would publish lots of law review articles. The righteous remnant in Carlisle, also quite predictably, started thinking of itself as focused on professional training — “experiential learning” in the current jargon — rather than on “theory.” (“Theory” is the buzzword for anything smacking of academic pretentions in this thing of ours).

The spat got bad enough that, even though the State College campus had been open for just a few years, the two faculties voted to file for academic divorce, and accepted an arrangement whereby the law school would be spun off into two separately accredited law schools. The ABA is currently finishing up on giving its blessing to the split, which should be completed by next fall or shortly thereafter.

If you think this sounds like a terrible idea, you haven’t heard the half of it. While the faculty was fighting over the wedding china and custody of the kids, enrollment and revenue were both collapsing. The two campus model was premised on having around 700 JD students enrolled at any particular time, while jacking up tuition drastically (it went from $25,500 in 2004 to $42,000 this year). The school enrolled first year classes of between 205 and 230 students in the late aughts, but over the last three years enrollments have plunged. This fall PSU 132 students matriculated at the two campuses, with just 34 of those matriculants beginning their legal educations in Carlisle’s new $50 million digs. (The decline in applications has been even steeper, from 5,326 in 2010 to 1,885 in 2013. H/T JDU.)

Not surprisingly, this whole operation is currently bleeding red ink at what I’m told PSU’s central administrators consider an unacceptable rate. Student-faculty ratio has plunged from 17.3 to 1 in 2004 to 8.8 to 1 in 2013 (for comparison purposes, average law school student-faculty ratios across the nation were 25 to 1 in 1990, 18 to 1 in 2000, and 14.3 to 1 in 2012). The school is spending millions of dollars a year more than it’s bringing in — perhaps $10 million more this fiscal year — and apparently things are going to get worse before they get better, because PSU announced this week that it’s cutting tuition in half for Pennsylvania residents. This announcement provides a dire hint regarding what the school’s current application volume looks like.

Note that this $20,000 annual “scholarship” doesn’t feature any stipulations, and is granted automatically to any state resident the school admits, so it’s really nothing but a straight up 50% price cut. Note too that current PSU 1Ls and 2Ls aren’t eligible for these “scholarships,” which means that next year many if not most of the school’s 2Ls and 3Ls (only 18% of last year’s student body got tuition discounts of half or more) will be paying twice as much in tuition as the entering 1Ls.

PSU’s law school has a total endowment of only $46 million, which is currently being split up between the soon-to-be separate schools. Assuming something like an equal split, each campus will be getting about a million dollars a year in endowment income going forward.

From a financial perspective this can’t and won’t work. Why then, given this ongoing collapse in law school operating revenue is, the university choosing to greatly increase operating costs, by forgoing all the economies of scale generated by being a single law school with two campuses? Now PSU will have to finance two separate law school administrations, two admissions processes, two career services operations, two development offices, etc. etc. Why would PSU’s central administration agree to this obviously untenable arrangement?

One possible answer is gross administrative negligence, which, given the current state of higher education in general, is a theory that has Occam’s Razor to recommend it. I suspect the real answer is rather more Machiavellian. On this account, the faculty divorce is providing central with an opportunity to downsize PSU’s law school operations relatively — at least from central’s perspective — painlessly. Once it has been spun off, the Carlisle version of the school will simply be allowed to die (recall that the campus can be closed in a little more than six years from now if the university declares a financial exigency), thereby permitting PSU to offload around a third of its tenured faculty all at once. The physical plant will be sold off to Dickinson College for pennies on the dollar, the university’s budget will unburden itself of about a dozen expensive faculty lines, and the Dickinson College of Law, will, after nearly two centuries, cease to exist.

It may well be that the Carlisle faculty — who are for the most part quite senior — even recognize this, and would prefer to run out the clock in this fashion, rather than remain tied to their State College brethren. We shall see.

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