Governor Deval Patrick said Monday that he supports cutting off state funding to Westfield State University, saying he has “very, very serious concerns” about the lavish spending habits of university president Evan Dobelle, who fired back that he is the victim of a politically motivated conspiracy.
Patrick’s higher education commissioner froze grants and construction funding to Westfield State Friday after Dobelle missed a state-imposed deadline to justify his spending on travel, luxury hotels, and upscale restaurants and to respond to allegations that he improperly used university credit cards.
“It’s more and more apparent that he’s not taking these concerns seriously,” the governor said. “They need to be, and will be, taken seriously.”
Patrick’s remarks came on the same day that Dobelle finally answered Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland’s questions in a 20-page letter showing that university trustees praised his leadership — and gave him a raise — less than a year ago. Dobelle said in the letter that school finances are strong and that he single-handedly raised $162,000 in donations.
Dobelle, under fire since an August accountant’s report detailing his many costly trips, argues that he is the victim of a conspiracy spearheaded by Jack Flynn, the trustee chairman and a senior official in the State Police. Dobelle said that Flynn launched the review of his expenses as a way to help police allies derail Dobelle’s vision for Westfield State and turn it into a “diploma mill” for state troopers.Dobelle argued through a spokesman Monday that the Patrick administration has joined Flynn’s cause.
“Commissioner Freeland has already revealed his true political motives by telling the media he had no choice but to believe the allegations against President Dobelle without first taking the time to review this report,” spokesman George Regan said in a statement. “The state should look at the motivations of chairman Jack Flynn, who conducted an illegal investigation while also pushing his own agenda.”
Dobelle also released a video Monday that took a veiled swipe at Patrick, referring to a 2009 news article that showed Patrick charged his campaign for two trips on which he was accompanied by his wife.
“I appreciate the governor’s comments,” said Dobelle in the taped statement. “He’s been down these kinds of roads himself with allegations and charges, and he’s always been afforded due process. And all I’m asking for is the same due process.”
John Walsh, executive director of Patrick’s campaign committee, said any suggestion that Patrick did anything wrong “is utterly without merit.”
Dobelle’s written response to Freeland came under immediate fire for dodging some issues while providing inaccurate information for others. Edward Marth, chairman of the Westfield State Foundation, disputed Dobelle’s description of his fund-raising success.
“Nobody has raised money, including him,” said Marth, whose fund-raising organization needed a $400,000 bail-out from the university, in part due to Dobelle’s free spending. “Somebody is trying to gild the lily to make it look good when it’s not. . . . If he was a success at raising money, we would have more like the million dollars in reserves we used to have, rather than closer to zero, which we have now. “
Dobelle’s letter also sidesteps questions about his May 2013 trip to San Francisco, where he reported to trustees that he made visits to seven Bay Area charitable foundations to discuss grants for Westfield totaling $500,000. In reality, the Globe reported last month, Dobelle sent a staff member inside the foundations with an information package, and he never talked to foundation officials.
Dobelle said he was not trying to mislead trustees, but was outlining the potential for future fund-raising “over a period of at least four to six months.” He did not discuss why he had his staff member revise his report on the trip to give trustees the impression that he met with foundation officials.
Likewise, Dobelle did not respond to Freeland’s request that he prove his earlier assertion that his costly foreign trips have paid off by expanding Westfield State’s international program to include 123 international students this fall. Internal school documents show that only 31 foreign students attended the school this fall and that only two pay full out-of-state tuition.
The bitter clash between Dobelle and state officials has escalated since Sept. 20, when Freeland summoned Dobelle and Westfield State trustees to Boston to express concern about Dobelle’s spending and the trustees’ lack of action, following reports that found Dobelle repeatedly violated university credit card policy.
Freeland followed up with a list of questions for Dobelle, demanding an answer by Oct. 3.
Dobelle responded by hiring a prominent public relations consultant, Regan, and going on the attack, alleging that Flynn is out to get him. Dobelle charged that Flynn illegally commissioned an acountant’s review of his expenses without the full approval of the 11-member board of trustees.
Flynn said he quietly approved the review by the accounting firm of O’Connor & Drew of Braintree after university officials received anonymous information about Dobelle’s spending. Flynn said he wanted to be discreet, because the allegations were embarrassing to the university.
But Dobelle’s lawyer said trustees were very proud of Dobelle’s work until only a few months ago, unanimously voting to give him a 3 percent raise in November 2012.
“It is clear to all of us that the recent successes of our institution are a direct result of Evan’s contributions and leadership,” Flynn wrote in a memo recommending the raise.
Dobelle’s response came too late for Freeland, who announced Friday that he was freezing grants to Westfield State, as well as $2 million in capital funding toward a new science center. Regan called it bizarre that Freeland would not wait until Monday.
Patrick said Monday that it is too soon to say whether Dobelle should resign, but “I think he’s not helping himself by apparently not taking this seriously and having a spokesman he’s hired . . . back in Boston whose job it seems to be to trivialize the role of the Board of Higher Education and the board of Westfield State.”
The fight could come to a head Oct. 16 when the trustees have slated a special meeting to consider whether they should suspend Dobelle.
By then, trustees should have the results of a no-confidence vote by Westfield State faculty, scheduled over four days leading up to the meeting. Union president Buzz Hoagland said he would not predict the outcome, but one faculty member said that “there’s a lot of animosity and resentment against” Dobelle.