Westfield State trustees mull punitive action against President Dobelle
WESTFIELD -- Trustees of Westfield State University met into the night Wednesday, weighing action against the school's president, who has come under fire after reports of lavish spending during overseas travel and improper use of school credit cards.
The board met for hours behind closed doors. Prior to the meeting, a union representing faculty and librarians at the state university voted no confidence in Evan Dobelle by a more than 2-1 margin.
The trustees could suspend Dobelle. His lawyer has threatened to take legal action if that occurs.
Dobelle has defended his spending and a spokesman for the president has alleged that board of trustees chairman Jack Flynn acted without authorization in hiring an accounting firm to review the president's expense reports.
University auditors reported in August that Dobelle and other top officials violated school policy by charging personal expenses to school credit cards. Dobelle has said he was following past practice and fully reimbursed Westfield for the personal charges.
Dobelle, who has led the university since 2007, has also responded to criticism that he spent on luxury hotels and restaurants during overseas trips, saying the spending was "strategically planned" and brought a significant return on investment for the school.
Dobelle has tried to turn the tables on several of the trustees, including Flynn, claiming they have acted vindictively and violated university bylaws.
In a Sept. 25 letter, Dobelle's private attorney, Ross Garber, said Flynn hired the auditing firm without authorization from the full board and that he met with two other trustees in violation of the state's open meeting laws.
Garber previously said that any suspension would be challenged in court.
Dobelle has been harshly criticized by Richard Freeland, the state's commissioner of higher education. In a scathing letter sent to trustees last week, Freeland said the "reckless manner" in which Dobelle acted had damaged the university's reputation.
The power to discipline or remove the president lies solely with trustees, but Freeland has frozen discretionary state funding for Westfield and urged the board to act Wednesday. He did not specify at the time what action he preferred.
George Regan, a Boston-based public relations executive hired by Dobelle, dismissed Freeland's letter as being part of a coordinated "smear campaign."
Dobelle, 68, the mayor of Pittsfield from 1973-75, also is a former U.S. chief of protocol for the White House in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, and has served as president of Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., City College of San Francisco and the University of Hawaii during his career.
The allegations of lavish spending at Westfield are similar to those leveled prior to his departure from the University of Hawaii in 2004.
Dobelle was fired by Hawaii University's regents but later negotiated a settlement of his 10-year contract that found no fault for either party and paid him millions in cash and benefits. Westfield officials apparently were aware of that dispute when Dobelle was hired there in 2008, after he had served in the intervening years with the New England Board of Higher Education.
At the institutions he has led, Dobelle, who still has a home in Pittsfield, repeatedly established a reputation for development of programs and campus buildings and other features. He also became known in some cases for lavish spending on travel, expenses and staff salaries.
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