The state’s top higher education official publicly scolded trustees of Westfield State University Friday for failing to rein in controversial president Evan Dobelle despite his “clear and consistent pattern of charging personal expenses in large amounts to a university credit card in clear violation of institutional policy and state ethics laws.”
Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland said “one of the worst moments” in his 40-year education career came in August when he read the Globe’s account of Dobelle’s lavish spending on travel to Asia and other destinations and how he ran up more than $200,000 in expenses on a single university-related credit card.
Freeland and other state officials said they were especially concerned that Dobelle’s spending may have damaged the university’s fund-raising operations, noting that the Westfield State College Foundation, the school’s fund-raising organization, required a $400,000 bailout from the university in part because of Dobelle’s costly initiatives.
“This is a sad day,” said Freeland to the trustees, who had been called to Boston to appear before Patrick administration officials to explain why they haven’t taken more action to hold Dobelle accountable. “I wish we did not have to be here.”
Dobelle, a self-described “change agent” who has said that all his spending was intended to improve the university, also appeared before Freeland and Charles F. Desmond, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education in a closed session on Friday afternoon. He insisted during the session that he had done nothing wrong, according to someone briefed on the talks.
And Dobelle publicly projected unconcern despite a preliminary finding by the state inspector general on Thursday that he had violated the university credit card policy. As he arrived for the meeting, Dobelle was asked whether he planned to step down from the $240,920 job he has held since 2008. “Oh gosh no. Why would I?” the Springfield Republican quoted him as saying.
Afterward, Dobelle issued a statement saying that he “appreciated the opportunity to meet with state higher education leadership and remains transparent, upbeat and focused on the good work of the university.”
State officials weren’t commenting Friday evening, but, just before their meeting with Dobelle, Freeland and Desmond said they planned to speak bluntly.
“We’re trying to convey to him our very serious concerns about what we have seen and learned, and we’ll rely on his good judgment to do the right thing,” said Desmond, though he did not say whether he thought Dobelle should resign.
Dobelle has consistently defended his trips and expensive wining and dining as fund-raising efforts that produced measurable results, which he calls “return on investment.”
But Freeland called those claims untrue, noting that Westfield has lagged behind other state schools in fund-raising.
“Fund-raising was dead last by a lot in the past two years,” said Freeland, “and has been one of the lowest two consistently over the past five years. A lot of these expenditures (by Dobelle) are being made in the service of raising money for Westfield. Yet, other presidents around the system are raising more money without these kinds of expenditures.”
The Globe on Friday reported that, on a recent university-funded fund-raising trip to San Francsico, Dobelle waited outside while a staff member went to seven different foundations to drop off information packages about the school. He told trustees that he had laid the groundwork for $500,000 in foundation grants from the trip, but all seven foundations said they never spoke to Dobelle or received a grant proposal.
State officials were particularly alarmed that the university appeared to be financially propping up the fund-raisers at the Westfield State College Foundation, transferring $400,000 to the foundation in 2010 to help cover costs, including Dobelle’s expenses.
“The foundation’s mission is to support the university, not the other way around,” said State Education Secretary Matthew Malone. “Taxpayers deserve to know why money intended to support a public university was used to support a nonprofit foundation.”
“How did it happen?” Freeland asked Jack Flynn, chairman of the Westfield State board of trustees.
“It’s a question I don’t have an answer to now,” Flynn said.
A Westfield staff member explained that Dobelle had authority to spend up to $500,000 without board approval.
“It’s a very big number for presidential discretion,” said Freeland, adding that as a state commissioner he can only authorize spending up to $5,000.
The trustees, all appointed by Governor Deval Patrick, told state officials on Friday that they know Dobelle violated university policies — their own accountant reached that conclusion in August — but said they didn’t want to rush to judgment. At the August meeting where the accountant’s review was released, they voted to delay action until Inspector General Glenn Cunha finishes his investigation.
Several trustees rallied to Dobelle’s defense that night, including Terry M. Craven, who criticized accountant David DiIulis’s report as “subjective analysis” and possibly invalid because DiIulis’s work was approved only by board chairman Flynn and not the full board.
“I’m concerned that this board remain above reproach,” said Craven at the meeting before a boardroom packed with Dobelle supporters.
Since then, Inspector General Cunha has issued a preliminary report, finding that Dobelle “indiscriminately” spent funds intended for scholarships and other programs. Cunha urged the board to take immediate action and not wait for his final report.
At Friday’s meeting, Craven tried to explain the slow pace of board action: “We have tried to gather information in a measured way without a rush to judgment. I share your concerns, but I also caution that we take a measured reaction.”
Flynn praised Dobelle for making “radical changes” to the institution “all for the good,” but added that “if folks have made mistakes or done something wrong, they need to be held accountable.”
However, Flynn said board members meet so infrequently they don’t have the ability to scrutinize day-to-day management of the school.
The trustees’ remarks did little to quiet the concerns of the Patrick administration officials.
“I want to say I’m more concerned today than I was yesterday,” said Desmond at the end of the two-hour meeting.
“You have to have honest leaders at those institutions,” Desmond explained later. “You have to have people who are committed to the public good leading those institutions and when you have that, you are going to have excellent institutions, and when you don’t, you’re going to see the types of problems such as the ones you’re looking at now.”