Philip J. McConnaughay, dean of the Dickinson School of Law since 2002, has accepted a position as the next dean of Peking University’s American-style law degree program in Shenzhen, China.
McConnaughay announced his resignation last Wednesday, to the surprise of his colleagues.
But McConnaughay’s transition abroad seems apt, as it was he who founded Penn State’s School of International Affairs, and has expertise in international litigation, said Marie T. Reilly, Dickinson’s senior associate dean of academic affairs.
“He is very knowledgeable and interested in Asia,” Reilly said. “This is a natural progression.”
Law professor Larry Backer, who was part of the committee that hired McConnaughay, said McConnaughay’s period as dean has been “extraordinarily eventful” and “not quiet.”
McConnaughay’s lasting legacy at Penn State will be his proposal to create a new law school at the University Park campus — but it was a decision that did not come without strong political opposition.
Dickinson was founded in Carlisle in 1834, and the law school merged with Penn State in 2000. McConnaughay was the first dean appointed after the merge.
After he was hired, McConnaughay proposed opening a second law school at University Park, because he said he recognized that “the very top law schools in the nation were all co-located with the research institutions they were a part of.”
There was concern that relocating the school and turning Carlisle into a smaller, satellite campus would hurt the struggling local economy of central Pennsylvania, McConnaughay said. Despite opposition, the law school opened at University Park in 2006, and a new, technologically advanced building opened on campus in 2008.
Recently, another of McConnaughay’s ideas concerning the future of Carlisle’s campus faced further backlash.
A significant reduction in the number of jobs available to recent law school graduates has consequently led to a large decrease of law school applicants, McConnaughay said. Penn State faced a 20 percent drop in law school applicants this past fall, one of the largest in the country, according to TaxProf Blog.
To combat this trend, McConnaughay proposed consolidating all 1L activities exclusively at the University Park campus. He planned to use the Carlisle campus to start an international law program.
His plan was opposed by Gov. Tom Corbett and Carlisle locals who believed the change would take away revenue from the town.
McConnaughay changed his plan and announced that next year, the two law campuses will split into separate accredited institutions with different administrations and different missions.
“If you’re going to insist we run two mirror-image law schools, then we will have two mirror-image law schools,” McConnaughay said. “But we’ll have them separately accredited.”
McConnaughay is hopeful about the future of both accredited schools, which, he said, will give students “a better choice” of which campus will best fit their needs.
“Carlisle has a very good faculty today and a very good administration, and there is every good reason to believe there is going to be a very good law school moving forward,” he said.
As for the legacy he leaves behind at University Park, McConnaughay said he is proud of his decision to open a school on the flagship campus.
“Establishing a principal campus of the law school at University Park clearly was the reason we have been able to recruit some of the top faculty in the world and the top students,” he said. “It will be the reason Penn State law will continue to enjoy a positive future as one of the best law schools in the world.”
Backer said McConnaughay has molded a law school that is well positioned to carry on without him.
“If you’re looking for a marker of success [in leadership], it is the building of an institution here that can survive and thrive,” Backer said. “And that’s a great thing.”