Widener University School of Law is mulling a plan to split its Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington campuses into separately accredited entities.
Although sources claim the plan is a cost-saving move to reduce expenses as law school admissions decline, the university challenges that notion, saying the decision is strictly for accreditation purposes.
"The discussion of separate accreditation for Widener Law predates the recession," said Mary Allen, public relations officer for Widener University School of Law. "This has nothing to do with the recession. The law school’s strategic plan, which was issued in 2006, called for us to look at separating the schools and we’ve been doing so every year since."
However, sources familiar with the discussions have told Delaware Law Weekly that Widener is again reviewing the plan, which would split the campuses into two separate entities.
The plan is coming back under active consideration just a few months after buyout packages were offered to 21 law professors.
The plan is said to be similar to one recently adopted by Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law, which separated its University Park, Pa., and Carlisle, Pa., campuses.
Penn State officials are expected to implement the plan in the 2014-15 academic year, which would have each campus headed by separate deans and faculty members. Also, both campuses are expected to maintain individual identities, programs and admissions policies.
Allen denied that discussions have picked up in recent months, but concedes that the university will likely move forward with the plan to split its campuses.
"We are moving forward with an eye in that direction and there is support for the idea among the university’s administrators," she said. "Dean [Linda L.] Ammons supports the idea. There is no timeframe for making this happen."
When asked if both campuses would retain the Widener name, Allen said it was too early to determine specifics about the proposed split.
"There have been discussions of what the names of the schools would be, but that is way far into the future," she said.
Sources allege that the decision to split Widener’s two campuses into separate schools is the result of declining law school enrollment throughout the country. According to data from the Law School Admission Council, as of January, there were only 30,000 applicants to law schools for the 2013-14 fall semester, a decrease of 20 percent from 2012 and a 38 percent drop from 2010. In fact, the Law School Admission Council estimates that this year will have the lowest number of law school applicants in 30 years.
Widener has not been immune from the drop in law school applications and, thus, decreased enrollment. According to university data, Widener had 1,369 full- and part-time students at both campuses during the fall of 2011. Of that total, 950 students attended the Wilmington campus while the remaining 419 attended the Harrisburg campus. This year, the school recorded 1,181 full- and part-time students at both campuses, with 817 in Wilmington and 364 in Harrisburg.
University data also reveals that applications for the Harrisburg campus are down roughly 24 percent. As of May 14, Widener had 308 Harrisburg-specific applications – a sharp decline from the 408 applications they had on the same date last year.
However, Allen denies that the decision to separate its campuses is a reaction to the tough economic times currently being experienced by law schools.
"It’s not a solution to a tight budget crunch," she said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Both of the campuses have grown tremendously over the last few decades. They have different needs and different programs and I think independence would make them grow strong."
"Separate accreditation would be an investment that responds to the strides that the school has made," Allen continued, noting the school has already discussed separating the campuses with the American Bar Association.
Widener has adopted certain cost-saving measures in recent months in order to prepare for a 2013-14 enrollment that is expected to be even less than this current year.
"We don’t know what the next class will look like in terms of enrollment until August, so we are planning for a lot of different scenarios," Allen said.
In February, the university offered buyout packages to 21 law professors and 17 other professors university-wide. Of the law professors, 16 were based in Wilmington and five were located in Harrisburg.
"The packages were offered as a proactive method to ensure the university’s financial health," Allen said. "We need to balance our budget and there is no secret that fewer people are going to law school around the country. We are taking steps to keep our finances in balance and this was one of those steps."
In addition, the school is said to be very prudent about filling any vacated staff positions and plans to keep open any vacated positions that the law school does not deem essential to its operation.
Sources have said that Widener is mulling cuts to its Intensive Trial Advocacy Program, or ITAP, which is a seven-day program held every spring at both campuses after the conclusion of final exams. The program consists of trial attorneys, judges and law professors who offer insight into trial law and culminates in a simulated jury trial so that law students can practice their skills in a real-world setting. It is said to be one of the school’s most popular features, according to former students.
The Wilmington ITAP program brings in about 60 additional faculty from all over the country. Widener covers the travel, hotel and food expenses of all visiting faculty and provides all participating faculty with a per diem to offset their costs.
"Yes, we made some financial cuts to ITAP, but did it in a way that does not impact that student experience," Allen said.
Widener has stopped paying the airfare for two faculty members who participate in the Harrisburg ITAP program and cut the per diem for all visiting faculty this year.
Allen said that the airfare cuts resulted in the loss of two Harrisburg guest faculty members. Widener did not cut travel expenses for visiting Delaware faculty.
There are no plans to reduce the ITAP budget for the May 2014 program, Allen said.
"We recognize the value of this program and training the next generation of trial lawyers," she said. "This program is a point of pride for us and there are few like it in the country. We are committed to ITAP."