Westfield State University suspends Dobelle, names interim leader
WESTFIELD -- Westfield State University named an interim leader on Thursday, hours after the school's board of trustees voted to suspend President Evan Dobelle amid criticism that he charged personal expenses on school credit cards and spent lavishly on foreign travel.
Dobelle, meanwhile, was expected to file a federal lawsuit challenging the action by the board.
Elizabeth Preston, the school's vice president for academic affairs, will serve as acting president in Dobelle's absence and oversee the day-to-day operations of the university.
"We share a deep and abiding commitment to the mission of the University and to our students," Preston wrote in a letter to faculty and staff. "That passion for the institution has resulted in heated debate over the past few weeks but is also a source of strength for us as we wrestle with the challenges we now face."
Following a lengthy meeting, trustees chairman John Flynn said they voted unanimously early Thursday to put Dobelle, a former mayor of Pittsfield, on paid administrative leave while a private law firm hired by the university conducted an investigation into "spending, employment and leadership" at the university as well as its fundraising arm, Westfield State Foundation.
The results of the investigation are due Nov. 25, Flynn said.
State higher education Commissioner Richard Freeland had earlier frozen discretionary state funding for Westfield and criticized Dobelle, saying the "reckless manner" he acted in had damaged the university's reputation.
Another former Pittsfield mayor, James M. Ruberto, is a member of the university board of trustees. Ruberto, who was at the lengthy board meeting when the administrative leave for Dobelle was approved, said Thursday he could not comment on the situation.
Dobelle did not comment after the meeting but his personal spokesman, George Regan, issued a statement promising that a lawsuit would be filed naming Freeland, Flynn and the board of trustees.
Flynn and the council's executive committee "conducted an illegal investigation against President Dobelle and they will have to answer to much more serious charges than the allegations that had been manufactured against Mr. Dobelle," Regan said.
"The Board has defamed President Dobelle and allowed him to be defamed and there will be major consequences to these actions," said Regan.
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.
State Inspector General Glenn Cunha last month urged the trustees to challenge Dobelle's claims that his travel had been a financial benefit to the school because it attracted international students. Cunha said the majority of those students were in fact Massachusetts residents who pay in-state tuition though they are not U.S. citizens.
The trustees began their meeting Wednesday afternoon but the closed-door session lasted through the evening and into the following morning. Before the meeting, a union representing faculty and librarians at the state university voted no confidence in Dobelle by a more than 2-1 margin.
Dobelle, 68, was elected mayor of Pittsfield in 1973 and 1975. He 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.
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