Hired Again, in Trouble Again

Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle is facing allegations that mirror the charges that ended his last presidency. Did anyone on the search committee notice?

September 24, 2013
Evan Dobelle

Less than a decade after Evan Dobelle departed the University of Hawaii system presidency amid accusations he had misspent money, lied and been unfit to lead, he is back in hot water as president of Westfield State University in Massachusetts.

In a series of revelations, Dobelle has been accused – as he was at Hawaii – of spending university money extravagantly and, at times, on himself and his family.

This raises questions about how and why Westfield, a public university of 6,000 students, hired Dobelle after his flameout in Hawaii in 2004.

At Hawaii, the antipathy leveled at Dobelle was extraordinary. One university board member said Dobelle “simply has no integrity and you cannot trust him,” according to press accounts of board minutes that summer. Another board member said there was “too much money being mismanaged and misused for his personal benefit.” Another board member said he could not deal with “another year of the president’s lies and deceptions.”

In summer 2004, the Hawaii board fired Dobelle for cause, although board members quickly reversed that decision and reached a settlement that still resulted in his departure.

Dobelle’s tenure at Westfield – Dobelle’s fifth college presidency – is now becoming tainted by a series of revelations about his spending habits there and demands for accountability from a growing chorus of public officials, including the state’s higher education commissioner. He has denied wrongdoing or foul intent, though admitted bookkeeping errors, at both institutions.

Westfield is Dobelle’s second job since Hawaii and it comes on the heels of what his supporters call a very solid time at the New England Board of Higher Education.

Jan Asnicar is a vice president at EFL Associates, the search firm Westfield used to find Dobelle in 2007.

She said the board at the time was aware of his past at Hawaii. “I know the university was well-apprised of it and that they went into the whole hiring situation with full knowledge,” Asnicar said.

The firm helped the university build the candidate pool but ultimately, she said, the decision was Westfield’s.

“My recollection is that they did extensive digging into Evan’s past and looked to make sure they felt comfortable with what they learned at the University of Hawaii,” Asnicar said.

"I can’t believe you guys hired him,” Hawaii Senate President Donna Mercado Kim told The Boston Globe recently. The paper broke the story about spending problems at Westfield.

But the question is why Westfield’s board ignored warning signs from Hawaii.

James Ferrare is head of AGB Search, a higher education executive search firm, which was not involved in hiring Dobelle.

Ferrare, who was careful to say he was speaking generally and not about a specific case, said there’s a general belief among some in his profession that the interview is not a reliable indicator of a candidate's eventual success. But interviews can sway trustees.

"If you believe that -- that even though the interview is very important, that the interview is the least reliable predictor of success -- then you’ve got to look at someone’s record,” he said.

But some boards or search committees don’t pay attention to the record and instead rely on the hours or few days they’ve spent with a prospective president.

“Overwhelmingly the process works, but some people interview exceptionally well, they’ve done it a lot, they’ve done it so much that they almost anticipate the questions before they’re asked and they know how to answer those questions so they sound terrific,” Ferrare said.

(Dobelle has potentially been tied to another bizarre incident, when someone using his cell phone appeared to impersonate a journalism intern to ask a Maine official about a job opening. Dobelle said his office had also received a call from a mystery caller and said he had tried to relay that message to Maine officials. Maine officials did not recall that attempt.)

Some people responsible for hiring Dobelle did not comment. The head of the university board’s search committee at the time, Gina M. Golash, did not return several calls seeking comment, then referred questions to a Westfield spokeswoman, though Golash is no longer a board member.

Jack Flynn, the current head of the Westfield board, was reportedly a Dobelle supporter when Dobelle was hired but is now questioning the president’s spending. He did not return multiple messages seeking comment.

Flynn brought in an external auditor to look at Dobelle’s spending. The auditors found Dobelle and his office used university and foundation funds for dinners at high-end restaurants, among other potentially questionable expenditures. Dobelle also charged personal expenses to the university or foundation – including stays at hotels in Vienna and Miami Beach and James Taylor tickets in his son's name. He later reimbursed the university or the foundation for the expenses, although the auditors found some poor documentation and one personal expense – for an $844 flight taken by Dobelle’s wife – that was reimbursed only after they asked Dobelle about it. (This paragraph has been updated. A previous version said Dobelle had purchased James Taylor tickets for his son. A university spokeswoman said his son works at a music venue and the tickets were in the son's name but for "honorary degree recipients.")

Following that audit from earlier this summer, the Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General wrote a letter to the university’s board last week to make clear Dobelle had violated university policy by using credit cards for personal expenses.

The inspector general also concluded Dobelle had spent or directed others to “indiscriminately” spend so much foundation money that the university had to transfer $400,000 to the foundation to cover a shortfall in 2010. The inspector general noted that was “despite the fact that the foundation’s mission is to support WSU” – not the other way around.

Dobelle certainly has traditional supporters. In 2011, long before questions became public about his spending at Westfield State, he had a library named after him at Middlesex Community College, his first presidential posting. On his website, Dobelle has a press release about the event quoting Representative Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat whose district includes City College of San Francisco, where Dobelle was also president. "Over the last 22 years, Evan Dobelle has undoubtedly been the finest college  president in the United States -- and you are lucky to have him at Westfield,” she said, according to the statement, which came before the revelations about spending at Westfield but after Dobelle’s departure from Hawaii.

In some ways, Dobelle’s contentious end at Hawaii was cushioned by his stint at the New England Board of Higher Education before he was hired by Westfield state.

Dobelle did not comment for this article. Instead he had a Westfield spokeswoman reply on his behalf.

“President Dobelle's tenure at NEBHE was productive and well-regarded,” spokeswoman Molly Watson said in an e-mail. “All of this information would have informed the presidential search committee process at Westfield State.”

John O. Harney, the executive editor at The New England Journal of Higher Education, who worked with Dobelle at the New England higher ed board, said Dobelle feels he was run out of Hawaii unfairly. Harnery also praised Dobelle, a former mayor, for being the “father of modern New England town-gown relations” during his time as president of Trinity College.

Harney cited Dobelle’s defense of himself in the Boston Globe story that revealed questions about his spending at Westfield. Dobelle said the money he spent was designed to get a return.

“I think his quote about spending money to make money sort of rang true about everywhere he’s been,” Harney said.

But the Massachusetts inspector general is concerned that motto is a mask. The inspector’s report said Dobelle had justified his expenses with “a number of optimistic assertions about a ‘return on investment.’”

Dobelle has said his international travel was justified because the university had “realized over $3,000,000,and recurring revenue of approximately $1,200,000 per year” from international programs and welcomed “123 international students from over 50 countries” this fall, according to the inspector general.

But the inspector general concluded Dobelle’s statements were “based on generalizations, assumptions, and misleading definitions, rather than hard numbers.” For instance, the inspector found, Dobelle’s “123 international students” are mostly Massachusetts residents who pay in-state tuition but are not American citizens. Those students formed the basis of the $1.2 million figured Dobelle cited.


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