Evan Dobelle would have stepped down as president of Westfield State University last week if trustees had agreed to let him take a paid sabbatical and return as a tenured professor in the fall, say several people briefed on the private negotiations.
But the trustees, alarmed at Dobelle’s free-spending and increasingly combative public remarks, placed him on paid leave instead, even making him turn in the keys to his university car at the end of the marathon Oct. 16 trustees meeting.
Now Dobelle has filed a federal lawsuit charging that trustees and the state’s top higher education official have conspired to destroy his reputation, raising the stakes in a three-month-long leadership crisis that has rocked the state university. Lawyers hired by the trustees are already investigating Dobelle’s spending habits with plans to report their findings by Nov. 25.
“At age 68, Dr. Dobelle’s long-celebrated career has been swiftly, unjustly, and perhaps irreparably damaged,” reads Dobelle’s complaint, filed Thursday, which alleges that the investigation of his spending is part of a smear campaign to drive him from power at the 5,400-student university near Springfield.
Dobelle, who is described as a visionary five times in the lawsuit, blamed much of his trouble on Jack Flynn, a senior State Police official who became chairman of the trustees in July 2012.
Since then, Dobelle and his publicist say, Flynn has been out to undermine Dobelle so that he could turn Westfield State into a “diploma mill” for state troopers.
“Flynn’s mission of attacking Dr. Dobelle took place without regard to rules or laws specifically designed to avoid these types of cowboy tactics,” says the complaint. Dobelle contended the investigation of his business expenses was just part of a “guerrilla war for control of the university.”
Flynn did not respond to requests for comment, but he has denied any conspiracy against Dobelle. Westfield State officials have said there is no evidence to support Dobelle’s contention that the school was being turned into a diploma mill.
Flynn did hire an accounting firm to review Dobelle’s use of credit cards last year, including a $200,000 tab on one university-related card, without seeking approval of the 11-member board. But Flynn has said he was trying to handle the charges quietly because they were embarrassing.
A spokeswoman for Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland, who is named as a defendant, said she had not seen the lawsuit, “but it appears to be yet another distraction from the issue of whether state funds were used inappropriately, which is the only issue that matters here.”
Freeland froze some state funding to Westfield State earlier this month, out of concern about Dobelle’s leadership.
For a time, it looked as if the two sides might avoid further public blood-letting during the closed-door trustees meeting last week.
Trustees talked for hours with Dobelle and his lawyer in hope of reaching a settlement under which Dobelle would depart. At least some in attendance said afterward that the two sides appeared to be making progress.
“There was an effort to resolve it,” said one person familiar with the negotiations. Trustees “talked about saying the hell with it and just give” Dobelle a deal that would allow him to walk away with no finding of wrongdoing.
Dobelle wanted an immediate sabbatical from his job as president, during which he would be paid at his presidential salary of $240,920 a year. He would eventually return as a tenured professor, probably at a salary of more than $100,000 a year.
Dobelle also wanted the university to pay his legal bills, already more than $100,000, from his fight with trustees. He also wanted the trustees to stop their investigations.
In the end, the trustees rejected Dobelle’s proposal because they thought it would be seen as rewarding bad behavior, say the people briefed on the meeting.
“You get a reward for doing a good job, not bankrupting a place,” said Edward Marth, chairman of the board of the Westfield State College Foundation, the school’s fund-raising arm.
Instead, after a long meeting with no break for lunch or dinner, the trustees placed Dobelle on paid leave while a law firm reviews the allegations against him.
Several people briefed on the inquiry say they expect it to lead to Dobelle’s departure.
The trustees asked for the keys to his Toyota Highlander, which the school had given him when he was hired in 2007. The trustees also took back his university cellphone and directed Dobelle not to contact university personnel.
“You don’t think it’s personal? How many times does the chairman of the board of a college ask a president to turn in his car keys?” said Dobelle’s publicist, George Regan.
Dobelle was looking for a “pittance,” especially compared to the multimillion-dollar payout Freeland received when he left his job as president of Northeastern University in 2006, Regan said.
It has been a steep fall for Dobelle, who at an August board meeting appeared to have the backing of most of the school’s 11 trustees.
But Dobelle’s actions in the past two months — including verbal attacks against Flynn, Freeland, and Governor Deval Patrick — helped galvanize the board, which voted unanimously to place Dobelle on leave.
In fact, it was Judge Terry Craven, formerly one of his staunchest supporters, who made the motion, said an official briefed on the trustees’ meeting.
Some trustees may also have been persuaded by the answers Dobelle gave to intense questioning by Betsy Scheibel, a trustee who formerly served as district attorney in Hampshire and Franklin counties, the official said.
She questioned Dobelle for more than an hour, and Dobelle’s answers only solidified the vote against him, the official said.
Dobelle’s suit, filed in US District Court in Springfield, demands unspecified damages from Freeland and Flynn, as well as trustees Kevin Queenin and Scheibel and the accounting firm that did the original review of Dobelle’s spending, O’Connor & Drew of Braintree.
“The media frenzy that has developed as a result of the defendants’ actions has harmed severely Dr. Dobelle’s reputation, such that it will likely be impossible for him to find comparable work,” reads the complaint. “Indeed, the actions of the individual defendants set forth above have stigmatized Dr. Dobelle, causing him to be the object of scorn and ridicule.”
Aside from the lawsuit, Dobelle’s bargaining power appears to be limited. Under his employment agreement, the trustees can terminate him — and pay him nothing — if they find he failed to follow “applicable policies or procedures governing the use and management of public moneys and trust funds.”
Both O’Connor & Drew and state Inspector General Glenn Cunha have found that Dobelle repeatedly violated university policy by charging personal expenses on school credit cards. Last week Attorney General Martha Coakley launched an investigation to determine whether Dobelle made any claims, in violation of the state’s false claims law, to justify his expenses.
Freeland met Wednesday with Elizabeth Preston, the school’s acting president, and is expected to approve her appointment as interim president for the rest of the school year.
After the meeting, Freeland said the state has released more than $220,000 in grant money that he had previously ordered withheld.
The state is still holding back $2 million in funding for a new science center.
If the trustees had agreed to give Dobelle a faculty position and a sabbatical, they would have met with resistance from the faculty union, whose contract expressly bars any president of the school from joining the faculty after leaving the job.
“We would have gone to the labor relations board to prevent it,” said Buzz Hoagland, head of the Massachusetts State College Association, the union that represents the school’s teachers and librarians. The union gave Dobelle a vote of no confidence last week.