Penn’s law school set a record by accepting the largest donation ever gifted to a law school, when it received $125 million from the W. P. Carey Foundation. In return, the formerly named University of Pennsylvania Law School will now be referred to as the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School – Carey Law for short – a decision that highlights another instance of Penn’s failure to be transparent with the student and faculty body. Penn should have consulted with students and stakeholders before taking this action, and must do so when making decisions in the future.
The renaming process was conducted confidentially for months leading up to the announcement, which came into effect on Nov. 8 following a Board of Trustees vote. Although the impulse to secure an enormous donation is understandable, and undoubtedly some good will come from the increased funding of the pro bono program that part of the donation will make possible, the voices of the law community, comprised of students, faculty, and other stakeholders, must not be ignored.
If Penn is serious about continuing to have one of the most prestigious and respected law programs in the country, administrators need to acknowledge student voices when major decisions are made.
The lack of transparency also allows decisions to avoid public scrutiny, and leaves relevant questions unanswered. For example, it’s unclear how, if at all, Penn’s Carey Law will be distinguished from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, which also goes by Carey Law.
While the fact that Carey Law Dean of Students Felicia Lin will be holding a “lunch conversation” for students who want to better understand the decision is a step in the right direction, it is a mistake to have a conversation after the fact. This removes potential agency that students could have had during the process.
Only one other school in the T14, a group of 14 law schools generally considered the most elite in the country, has taken the name of a donor: Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. The debate between students — who contend that the change hurts name recognition — and administrators — who feel that employers will eventually adapt to the change — is immaterial: This is a major change, it will affect students and recent graduates on the job market, and it is relatively rare among peer institutions.
The decision to conduct the process in relative secret and announce the decision without considering student input was a poor one. This is a larger problem among University administrators. They repeatedly fail to be transparent about policy changes when dealing with issues that affect many students, as has been the case for addressing sexual assault on campus and fraud in admissions. They do not solicit stakeholder input before making decisions, which either leads to the implementation of policies that negatively affect the student body — as was the case for the task force — or leads to Penn walking back policies and creating problems that could have been avoided, as was the case with the squash court fees.
The renaming of the law school may seem like a low-stakes issue, especially for the thousands of Penn students who are not studying law, but it represents a broader issue. University administrators must acknowledge that without students, Penn is nothing. Carey Law may turn out fine, and a few years from now the name may be synonymous with the prestige and elite preparation for a career in law that currently accompanies the name Penn Law. But even if administrators are confident that this is the case, they still should have opened the process up and considered the views of stakeholders. They must take a lesson from this process when an analogous issue inevitably arises in the future.
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