The state’s top higher education official said Friday that it is “highly questionable” whether Evan Dobelle should remain as the president of Westfield State University, accusing him in a letter of “repeated examples of inappropriate behavior,” such as spending public funds on himself and engaging in baseless attacks on public officials.
Richard M. Freeland, the state’s higher education commissioner, said “it would be hard to overstate the damage that has been done to the reputation of our public colleges and universities” by the controversy surrounding Dobelle’s lavish spending, including more than $200,000 in charges on one university-related credit card over a two-year period.
Freeland already froze state funding to Westfield State after Dobelle failed to meet an Oct. 3 deadline to answer detailed questions about his spending habits. Westfield State’s board of trustees has scheduled a special meeting Oct. 16 to consider whether to suspend Dobelle either with or without pay.
In his scathing three-page letter to the trustees, Freeland said stronger action may be needed after Dobelle released his own belated 20-page defense of his spending this week that Freeland described as vague, selective, and “without the slightest documentation” for numerous large expenses he charged to Westfield State.
“It is unacceptable for the president of a public higher education institution to engage in . . . the repeated, unbridled use of public property for personal purposes [as well as] excessive and lavish business expenditures [and] inadequate documentation of any returns on investment for such excessive expenditures,” Freeland wrote.
Dobelle could not be reached for comment, but his spokesman George Regan said Freeland’s letter is further evidence that Dobelle is the victim of a political conspiracy involving Freeland, as well as the chairman of the Westfield State board of trustees.
“Commissioner Freeland’s absurdly angry letter to the board of trustees at 6:30 p.m. on a holiday weekend is part of a well coordinated public relations attack to mask political agendas,” Regan said in a statement. “President Dobelle has had nothing but stellar evaluations until the current smear campaign.”
Regan has asserted that the chairman of the trustees, Jack Flynn, a top State Police official, is out to get Dobelle because Flynn wants to turn the school into a “diploma mill” for his State Police friends. Regan says Flynn initiated an illegal review of Dobelle’s expenses as a subterfuge to derail Dobelle’s broader vision for the university, located 10 miles west of Springfield.
“Westfield State is a proud and successful school,” said Regan. “It will not be bullied.”
In his letter, Freeland accused Dobelle and Regan of engaging in “absurd conspiracy theories and personal attacks on the motives and intent of Westfield State board members and others.
“All of those issues are fundamentally irrelevant in our judgment,” Freeland wrote.
Freeland’s letter marks a new low in relations between Dobelle and state officials since the release of an accountant’s review in August, which showed Dobelle had repeatedly violated university credit card policy and had charged the school for many thousands of dollars in expenses for which there was no documentation.
Freeland said Dobelle and Regan’s media campaign, including a videotaped statement by Dobelle earlier this week that took a veiled swipe at Governor Deval Patrick, have made a bad situation in Westfield immeasurably worse.
“I am outraged by the reckless manner in which the president is placing at risk all that so many responsible educators and public officials, including the board, the faculty and staff of Westfield State, have worked for,” wrote Freeland.
Dobelle went through a similar bitter public feud with his employers at the University of Hawaii, where the board of regents fired him in 2004 amid charges of reckless spending and dishonesty. Dobelle said he was a victim of a Republican governor who saw him as a political threat; ultimately, university officials rescinded the firing and paid Dobelle a large settlement after an extended public fight.
In his letter, Freeland suggested that he doesn’t want a lengthy fight with Dobelle at Westfield State. “I am deeply concerned that a continued, protracted review of these issues will only prompt continued accusations on the part of the president and lead to further damage to public higher education and the public trust,” Freeland wrote.
Ultimately, the 11-member board of trustees, not Freeland, have the power to decide Dobelle’s fate. But Freeland has told trustees he will be at their meeting and expects them to act. “I look forward to hearing promptly thereafter of the action the board has taken to address these issues,” he wrote.Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Scott Allen at email@example.com.