Dobelle Placed on Leave

Westfield State University's board takes action against president, who is under investigation for lavish spending.

October 17, 2013

Five-time college president Evan Dobelle's job hangs in the balance after he was placed on paid leave early this morning by the Westfield State University board.

The Westfield Board of Trustees "placed President Dobelle on administrative leave while an investigation into his spending is completed," a university spokeswoman said. The decision was announced following a closed-door trustee meeting that Massachusetts media said ended after midnight Thursday.

Dobelle, the local news media reported, is on paid leave until Nov. 25, pending the outcome of the investigation, which is only the latest in a series of examinations of the president's spending. Dobelle's use of university funds has been described by Massachusetts state officials as unbridled, excessive, lavish and in violation of policies at the 6,000-student public university. For instance, a top state education official said Dobelle had not explained $14,000 in undocumented wire transfers to China and Vietnam and a $350 lunch and a $1,142 dinner, among other expenses.

The announcement of Dobelle's immediate fate followed more than 10 hours of deliberations by the trustees and a separate faculty vote of no confidence that was announced Wednesday by the Westfield faculty union.

Dobelle may file a lawsuit over the board's actions.

"I would not be surprised to take legal action soon," Dobelle's lawyer early this morning told MassLive, a news website that is among the state media outlets closely tracking the controversy at Westfield. "The violation of law and the violation of Mr. Dobelle’s legal rights need to be remedied."

The board's suspension and the faculty's no confidence vote cap weeks of mounting pressures on Dobelle. The president has been increasingly embattled after August revelations in The Boston Globe that he spent the public university's money extravagantly and, at times, on himself and his family,

Dobelle has faced battering in the press, sharp questioning by Massachusetts officials and scrutiny from the trustees, including its chairman, who supported Dobelle's hiring in 2007.

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

The Westfield contretemps is not Dobelle's first at the helm of a public institution. Less than a decade ago, he departed the University of Hawaii System presidency amid accusations he had misspent money, lied and been unfit to lead. Westfield hired him anyway, a decision that raises questions about board-level decision making.

Dobelle has denied intentional wrongdoing and returned fire at his critics. He hired a crisis communications consultant and, together, they have fought back against the allegations by, among other things, accusing the Westfield board chairman of improperly investigating Dobelle's doings and attempting to turn the university into a "diploma mill."

Both of Dobelle's allegations against the chairman have been met with withering replies from Dobelle's critics.

"This is not about procedural missteps or board by-laws," Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland wrote to the university board several days ago, referring to Dobelle's offensive. "This is about public stewardship and trust. This is about cavalier and possibly deceptive practices with regard to university spending."

Freeland noted, among other expenses, $2,930 Dobelle spent traveling to San Francisco in May to meet with charitable foundations that specifically do not give money to institutions outside the San Francisco area, which is some 3,000 miles from Westfield's campus.

He also said it would be "be hard to overstate the damage" Dobelle's actions have caused to the reputation of the state higher ed system.

The "diploma mill" allegations are directed by Dobelle's camp at the board chair, Jack Flynn, who is also chief administrative officer of the Massachusetts State Police. Dobelle's spokesman, George Regan, said Flynn is attempting to turn out easy degrees for police officers.

In a recent telephone conversation with Inside Higher Ed, Regan offered no evidence to support his assertion except that it had been quoted in a Boston newspaper.

Buzz Hoagland, the head of the Westfield faculty and librarians' union, said rumors of such police plots had circulated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which is about when Dobelle began his career in higher ed administration as a president of Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Mass. But Hoagland said those rumors were old news.

“He’s bringing something up that is 15, 20 years old, long before Jack Flynn was here -- so, you know, he’s reaching back in the past to get this stuff,” Hoagland said in a telephone interview.

The board's decision to suspend Dobelle, during a scheduled meeting that began Wednesday afternoon, followed the faculty no confidence vote, which took place over several days but was announced Wednesday and served to raise questions about what constituencies Dobelle has behind him at this point. Faculty voted 138 to 61 that they lacked confidence in Dobelle's leadership, according to Hoagland. Sixteen faculty members abstained from the vote.

Hoagland said faculty members had not been discontented with Dobelle until recent revelations about his fiscal management. Indeed, they had praised Dobelle for creating 52 new faculty lines, he said. But faculty have noticed belt-tightening of late, Hoagland said, like the end of a guest lecture series or money for students that “disappeared."

“Many of the things have dried up and, at least in the last couple months, nothing has happened because of all of these issues that have come to light,” Hoagland said.

Still, Dobelle has supporters.

Laurie Simpson, director of academic advising -- she is both a staff member and a faculty member -- is one of them. She backed Dobelle during the no confidence vote and blamed the press for smearing Dobelle, whom she called Westfield's best president ever.

“I’m so disturbed by what I might say is a witch hunt, and I’ve seen it happen before -- people are hurt, people are gone, but feelings never go away, the pain of what we’re going through doesn’t go away quickly," she said in a telephone interview.

The closed-door board session began around 2 p.m. Wednesday and adjourned at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday, according to Twitter accounts by local reporters who staked out the meeting. During that time, the area fan favorite Boston Red Sox played Game 4 of the American League Championship Series in a miserable 7-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers that tied the series 2-2. It remains unclear how many innings Dobelle now has left.


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