Penn State Dickinson Law and Penn State Law in University Park may be reunited

As Pennsylvania State University continues to face a deficit, President Neeli Bendapudi on Tuesday recommended reuniting its two law schools, one at Dickinson and the other at University Park, which separated just eight years ago.

Penn State Dickinson Law in Carlisle — the oldest law school in Pennsylvania — would remain as the main campus, led by its current dean, Danielle M. Conway, Bendapudi said. Over time, she said, the move would yield “significant savings” — though she refused to forecast exactly how much — which could be pumped into other academic programs.

While savings are a factor — the university has committed to closing a $140 million deficit over the next two years — it’s not the primary factor, she said.

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“As I started looking at it with the senior leadership team here, it became increasingly clear that the two law school model, where we have two entities competing under the umbrella of Penn State, is not the best approach,” he said Bendapudi . “Focusing our resources would allow us to build a much stronger law school and actually provide a much more robust experience for students.”

Whether the law school program would remain in University Park or what would happen to the imposing $60 million Lewis Katz building, constructed in 2009 as a home for the school, is uncertain. She is setting up a committee to study how the combination would come about, with a report due in six months. The plan would be subject to approval by the Penn State Board of Trustees and the American Bar Association, and even after that approval, they estimated it would take 18 months to two years for the change to take effect.

Matthew Schuyler, chairman of the trustees, said in a statement that the board supports the process outlined by Bendapudi.

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“The Board supports the consideration of merging our two law schools into one, as this outcome would likely enhance the university’s law education offering while helping to achieve the broader goal of effectively managing our resources,” he said.

Bendapudi’s recommendation comes six months into her tenure, but trustees have been discussing and talking about the two law schools for a while during her interview process, she said. Penn State Law had also been interviewing candidates for the deanship that fall, and she decided it wouldn’t be ethical to hire anyone, knowing that consolidation was being considered.

She announced the plan at 12:30 p.m. at a town hall for Penn State Law students, faculty and staff.

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Penn State acquired the Dickinson School of Law in 1997, giving the state’s flagship university its first law school. It opened a second Dickinson Law campus in University Park in 2006, with the two operating under one roof. Then, in 2015, after Governor Corbett and the Cumberland County Commissioners rejected a plan to close first-year courses on the Dickinson campus, the university created the two separate law schools.

The Penn State Dickinson School of Law, which enrolls 282 full-time students and has annual tuition of $53,558, was ranked 58th among the best law schools in a recent US News ranking. The school has 73 full-time faculty and staff. Meanwhile, Penn State Law, the University Park School, ranked 64th with 553 full-time students and annual tuition of $51,648. It has 109 full-time faculty and staff.

But with a highly competitive market — Pennsylvania has nine law schools — and a decline in high school seniors that’s expected to worsen in the coming years, that model no longer works, Bendapudi said. The other state law schools are at Drexel, Temple, Villanova, the University of Pennsylvania, Duquesne, Widener, and the University of Pittsburgh.

“The combination of our resources could position us to be much more competitive in this space,” she said.

Law school enrollments have declined sharply nationally since their peak in 2010. Though applications surged in 2021, the most recent application cycle in 2022 showed an 11.7% year-over-year decline and a slight decline from 2020, according to the American Bar Association Journal.

The panel examining how the combination would occur will be chaired by Conway, Dickinson’s law dean, and vice-chair law professor Victor Romero, who will become interim dean on Jan. 1, with faculty, staff, students and alumni from both acting as collaborators members, Bendapudi said.

Current students and those admitted for fall 2023 will receive their education at their current campus, she said. The School of International Affairs, currently part of the Law School at University Park, will remain intact but will be relocated to another home.