PhillyDeals: Two universities cancel or cut back law-school plans

Mario the Magnificent stands tall on the Drexel campus. Plans for a new law-school building are on hold.

Two signs law school isn't the ticket to riches it used to be for students or colleges:

Drexel University has delayed plans to build a fancy new building to house its law-school program. And the University of Delaware has canceled a proposal for a law school of its own.

Delaware acted after talking to American Bar Association officials, who have noted a drop in both student interest and law-firm placement. Delaware also reviewed state plans to cut back higher-education subsidies.

The university concluded a law school would initially lose $160 million a year.

"We are not prepared to ask the Board for approval to incur that kind of deficit," according to a report by a committee assembled by UD president Patrick Harker that studied the proposal.

Even without a new law-school building, Moody's Investor Service downgraded Drexel's bond rating to A3 from A2 last week.

The university, which grew rapidly and raised academic standards under then-president Constantine 'Taki' Papadakis, faces "escalating" debt and "tepid financial resource growth," Moody's says. While Drexel's tuition income is "solid," other high-rated schools have "stronger cash flow."

Drexel has to work to find top students for its colleges and hospital patients for its medical-school programs "in Philly's competitive market," noted Alan Schankel, bond analyst at Janney Capital Markets. Across the nation, private universities "are under strain."


The Exxon of H20

In upstate Pennsylvania, where underground fuel is plentiful but the clean water needed to pump it to the surface is scarce, one Philadelphia-area company is marketing water stations to make it easier for drilling companies to keep finding gas.

"An average well may use as much as four to five million gallons of water" to hydraulically fracture rock and force gas to the surface, Aqua America boss Nick DeBenedictis told investors in a conference call Friday after announcing his company's most profitable quarter ever.

To carry all that water to remote drill sites, "they're using trucks that carry 5,000 gallons" each - hundreds of truckloads per well, DeBenedictis said.

He described an alternative: Aqua America-owned systems in the regions where the drilling is occurring can deliver water to drilling sites, "so [trucks] don't need to go through these small towns and dig up the roads."

DeBenedictis, who headed the state Department of Environmental Resources in the 1980s, says the DER last year asked Aqua to come up with ways to treat polluted drilling "flowback" water that has been threatening to overwhelm upstate wastewater treatment plants.

The price for selling water to drillers "is unregulated," DeBenedictis added. As more drillers get permits, demand for Aqua America water "will grow geometrically."


Philly move

Conner Strong, the Marlton-based insurance brokerage and benefit consultant owned by George Norcross, the Cooper Medical chairman and South Jersey Democratic leader, and his partners, says it is opening a "dual headquarters" in Center City Philadelphia.

The firm plans a 25,000-square-foot office in Two Liberty Place, to house nearly 100 insurance pros. That is almost triple the size of its current Philadelphia office in Commerce Square.

Norcross said Conner Strong was moving into the vacuum created by the consolidation of regional brokers into a handful of big U.S. firms such as Marsh McClennan, Aon, and Willis.

Conner Strong was famous for seeking South Jersey municipal business from towns controlled by both parties when it was an affiliate of the former Commerce Bank. Now its customers include regionally based national businesses such as Ron Rubin's PREIT shopping-mall chain, North Jersey-based drugmaker Celgene, Marlton-based nuclear-energy service firm Holtec International, and others.

Philadelphia, with its busy downtown, easy transportation access, and low rents, is a good base for national growth, said Conner Strong president Michael Tiagwad, whom Norcross recruited from rival broker Graham Co. in 2005.

In addition to the property-and-casualty insurance sales unit headed by longtime Tiagwad lieutenant Frank Proctor, Conner Strong includes an employer benefits consulting business headed by Joseph M. DiBella.


Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or