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Mixed opinion at Westfield State over president’s spending

WESTFIELD — Chas Hodgdon, a junior from Woburn, appears smitten when he talks about Westfield State University. He lives in a new $55 million dormitory, enjoys the abundant campus greenery, and finds the coursework challenging.

“I love it here; I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Hodgdon, a 22-year-old transfer student, as he left gleaming University Hall this week.

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But his mood darkened when he talked about the controversy swirling around Westfield State president Evan S. Dobelle, who is under fire for years of lavish spending that included many personal charges to the university’s fund-raising organization.

University trustees have scheduled an Oct. 16 meeting to consider suspending Dobelle with pay while they investigate. Meanwhile, state officials have announced plans to freeze construction funds for the school after Dobelle missed a deadline to answer their questions about his spending.

“I’m disappointed that we actually have to deal with what he did,” said Hodgdon. “To be honest, I just think he knew somebody and thought he could get away with it and still have a job.”

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Details of Dobelle’s credit-card spending have swept across the bucolic lawns of this 175-year-old institution: $10,000 for tickets to Tanglewood, $4,000 in limousine rides, $883 at the upscale clothier Louis Boston, $975 for an Arlo Guthrie concert.

All of this, Dobelle argued, is a visionary’s price to make Westfield State more like a private college with state tuition rates.

Many students, including Nathan Goldstein of Braintree, do not know what to make of an issue that seems disconnected from their day-to-day lives at Westfield State, a school of 5,400 students that has quietly produced many of the state’s teachers and police officers for generations.

“Some people call it promoting the brand; some call it frivolous — I’m not too sure,” said Goldstein, a 19-year-old who is majoring in criminal justice. “But maybe he needs to be kept in check.”

Dobelle, a former mayor of Pittsfield, came to the university in 2008 with a pledge to raise its stature and turn the small city of Westfield into more of a classic college town. His motto, he said, was “private quality and public value.” Even many of his critics do not dispute that Dobelle has made progress on that ambitious agenda.

What are disputed are Dobelle’s spending habits, including his use of a Westfield State Foundation credit card to make more than $200,000 in purchases, many of them for personal charges. After the fund-raising group canceled the card, Dobelle began billing thousands, including personal charges, to a university credit card issued to his executive assistant.

Those expenses included a personal charge of $875 for a 2011 stay at a five-star London hotel that was not repaid for more than a year, Westfield State records show.

Dobelle’s free spending of foundation money helped cause a financial crisis at the fund-raising organization in 2010 that required a $400,000 bailout from the university.

But what critics call wasteful spending, such as a $148,000 trip to Asia by a Dobelle-led delegation, Dobelle has defended as the price of elevating a 175-year-old institution, about 10 miles west of Springfield, from obscurity to the global stage.

Thomas Gardner, a communications professor who has traveled twice to Vietnam for Westfield State, thinks that price is worth paying.

“I’ve never seen an institution turn around and become such an exciting and thrilling and interesting place to teach and work,” Gardner said. “Personally, it would be a shame to lose that leadership.”

Westfield State students now benefit in hard-to-quantify ways because of Dobelle’s “global vision,” Gardner said.

“A lot of these kids have backgrounds without a lot of international travel, maybe not even past I-495,” Gardner said. “We’re not into letting only Harvard graduates have an international experience. It doesn’t always show up in dollars and cents. It shows up in the kids’ view of the world.”

But Dobelle has drawn sharp criticism from state education officials since a Globe report in August highlighted the spending controversy.

Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland has demanded that Dobelle respond to detailed questions about his spending, including the state inspector general’s findings that he violated university credit-card policy and used foundation funds “with little or no consideration for the mission or financial viability of the foundation.”

Dobelle missed Freeland’s Oct. 3 deadline to answer, saying he needed until Monday to collect proper documentation.

Publicly, many Westfield State faculty members are circumspect when asked about the findings by the inspector general, who corroborated conclusions reached by an accountant hired by an executive committee of the board of trustees.

“We want a good accounting of how the taxpayers’ money and the school’s money is spent,” said Buzz Hoagland, president of the Westfield State faculty and librarians union, who sidestepped a direct question about whether Dobelle’s spending concerns him.

The union will wait until Dobelle responds to Freeland’s questions before reacting to the controversy, Hoagland said. Later, he added, “We know people in power sometimes misuse money and they get caught.”

Two other faculty members, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, described a campus in turmoil.

“I have no confidence in this guy, and many of my peers have no confidence in this guy,” said one tenured professor. “We don’t feel there is any way he can stay at this place because he’s let us down so profoundly.”

Another professor said that reports of Dobelle’s spending caught the faculty by surprise.

“He’s done a lot of very positive things, but we also didn’t know about this other side, the lavish spending side,” the professor said. “So the question becomes, at what cost?”

Dobelle has countered that the review of his finances is part of a State Police campaign to derail his vision for Westfield State and turn the school into a “diploma mill” for police. Dobelle has argued that Jack Flynn, a top State Police official and chairman of the university’s board of trustees, is driving the conspiracy.

Flynn has strongly denied the accusations. But, for some faculty members, such public accusations make the situation worse, not better.

“Many faculty feel that the way he’s handled the situation has been so detrimental,” the professor said. “Just the reputation — it’s something you can’t measure, and then there are concerns about donors and fund-raising and scholarships.”

Hoagland, the union president, did credit Dobelle for allowing more teachers to be hired since the recession began, about two dozen teachers in the last five years, but he stopped short of extending that credit for what happens in the classroom.

“That’s the faculty,” Hoagland said after a long pause, “not the president.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@ globe.com.
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