Westfield State University trustees knew about Evan Dobelle’s spectacular flame-out as president of the University of Hawaii on the day they hired him in December 2007. They even hosted a campus meeting where 100 people discussed whether Westfield should hire someone who had left another school amid public charges of reckless spending and broken promises.
Dobelle, a former White House chief of protocol, had a dazzling resume and an answer for everything, including why Hawaii fired him: The decision was political, he said, and eventually withdrawn when he threatened to sue. The consultant who recruited Dobelle to Westfield said Dobelle was so impressive he was “almost out of our league,” recalled a member of the hiring committee.
And, for anyone at the campus meeting who was nervous about Dobelle’s past, then-trustee chairman Thomas J. Foley was soothing. “We assure you, if we hire Evan, we will be paying attention,” he told people at the campus meeting, according to someone who was there.
Six years later, Westfield State trustees face a nightmare jarringly similar to the one faced by University of Hawaii Regents in 2004 when they fired Dobelle. On Wednesday, the Westfield board will meet to consider suspending Dobelle amid allegations that he has wasted university funds and improperly charged personal expenses to university-related credit cards.
The trustees deserve considerable blame for the mess, say some observers, because they missed warning signs both before Dobelle was hired and after he took office, when his free-spending on travel, luxury hotels, and high-end restaurants helped cause a financial crisis at the university’s fund-raising organization. Yet trustees gave Dobelle glowing reviews and raises until late 2012, saying they only realized the depth of the problems after that.
“Obviously, this is an utter failure in corporate governance,” said Mark Rogers, chief executive of BoardProspects.com, which consults with corporate and nonprofit boards on best practices. “The board has to leave. Everyone has to go. They have lost all credibility.”
But Foley, who is no longer on the Westfield board, said the trustees should not be blamed because Dobelle took advantage of them. He said they did their best to pick a president from a limited talent pool and to rein him in when they realized he was running up big bills on three credit cards.
“You have 11 people there who are donating their time and expense . . . who meet three or four times a year,” said Foley, a former State Police colonel best known for his pursuit of James “Whitey” Bulger. “You can’t blame people like that.”
However, officials in Hawaii say they could have directed Foley to the extensive coverage of Dobelle’s ouster if he had called. Kitty Lagareta, former chair of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, said that when she heard about Dobelle’s lavish spending at Westfield — including a delegation he took to Asia at a cost of $148,000 — it sounded painfully familiar.
“It was like deja vu all over again,” said Lagareta, noting that Dobelle took multiple costly trips to Asia while he worked in Hawaii. “The Oriental hotel [in Bangkok] — exactly the same places. We had the same exact bills. We had the same story.”
She said the University of Hawaii ultimately agreed to pay Dobelle $1.4 million plus lawyer’s fees to terminate his 10-year contract rather than firing him, saying that the bitter public wrangling with Dobelle was paralyzing the school.
“We didn’t want to put the university through more years of turmoil,” said Lagareta, who was not on the board when regents hired Dobelle. “I regret it now. It might have protected other people.”
Just as he did in Hawaii, Dobelle has launched a furious counterattack against his Westfield critics, hiring a lawyer and public relations consultant to accuse them of conspiring against him. Dobelle says that the current Westfield board chairman, a top State Police executive named Jack Flynn, illegally launched an investigation of his expenses as part of a plot to turn Westfield State into a “diploma mill” for State Police.
Dobelle’s spokesman George Regan said Flynn wants to derail Dobelle’s leadership so that he can “funnel his trooper buddies” through the university.
There’s little evidence to support Regan’s assertion: The continuing education program used by police to get advanced degrees at Westfield State is tiny — 61 students — and shrinking, so much so that the school closed satellite classrooms in Framingham two years ago. Kimberly Tobin, Westfield’s dean of graduate and continuing education, said no one has asked her to change the academic program in any way.
“We’re not a diploma mill. We never have been and we never will be,” Tobin said.
Board specialist Rogers said Dobelle’s widening attacks — he targeted Governor Deval Patrick earlier this week — show that he no longer expects to keep his $240,920 a year job as president.
“You can clearly see that Dobelle is orchestrating his departure. There’s no question about it,” said Rogers. “The idea is, ‘I’ll throw as much stuff against the wall as possible’ ” in hopes of getting a better financial settlement when he steps down.
The seeds of the showdown were sown in 2007 when Westfield State, a 5,600-student school that produces many of Massachusetts’ teachers and police, began looking for a new president. Foley preferred the interim president, Barry M. Maloney, but higher education officials nixed the idea because he did not have a doctorate.
The trustees could not agree on another candidate after the first search, so they asked their consulting firm, EFL Associates of Kansas City, to look again.
That’s when EFL Associates’ David Horner suggested Dobelle, a former mayor of Pittsfield who was then president of the New England Board of Higher Education, a lobbying group. Previously, Dobelle had served as president of Trinity College in Connecticut and two community colleges, and some considered him a “rock star” of higher education.
Horner was supposed to investigate candidates’ backgrounds, but it’s unclear who, if anyone, he spoke with in Hawaii. Horner and other EFL officials did not return calls for this article, but former board chairman Foley recalled getting only general information about Dobelle’s tenure in Hawaii.
“There were a couple of newspaper articles about what had happened, but no specific information was coming to us from Hawaii,” said Foley. “There was an agreement and they settled things . . . It was a ‘he said, she said’ type of situation.”
Dobelle defused the issue in his first appearance at Westfield, according to Tobin, who served on the presidential search committee.
“He walked in and said, ‘You’re probably all wondering what happened in Hawaii,’ ” she said, and Dobelle walked them through the controversy, referring them to websites that suggested Dobelle was a visionary done in by Republican governor Linda Lingle, whom he had campaigned against in 2002.
“The governor looked at me as a potential contender” for her job, Dobelle explained in an interview with the Globe in August.
A closer look at Dobelle’s record in Hawaii would have revealed that he was under fire for questionable spending 10 months before Lingle took office — when he took 25 potential donors and staff to a Janet Jackson concert in February 2002, paying for the $65 tickets with funds from the university’s foundation. A state audit the next year accused him of “a number of questionable foundation expenditures made under the guise of fund-raising.”
By the time Dobelle left in 2004, hostility toward him was both high-profile and bipartisan — two Democratic lawmakers co-wrote an essay denouncing him as “a globe-trotting president [who] fails to bring home the money he promised.” Two regents who voted to fire him said they would have quit if Dobelle stayed.
Dobelle quickly moved on to the much smaller New England Board of Higher Education, where he avoided controversy. But a review of readily available documents would have shown Westfield State officials that he ran into serious money issues there, too.
In Dobelle’s first full year as president, the Boston nonprofit spent $205,638 on travel, more than quadruple what it spent before Dobelle took over, according to the group’s financial statements. Dobelle argued that New England colleges needed to raise their international profile to attract foreign students, taking a delegation of about 12 to China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand.
Rising expenses quickly outstripped the group’s revenue, which come mainly from New England taxpayers, leading to a $631,000 deficit in 2006 along with layoffs and the elimination of a program.
A board spokesman said Dobelle left on good terms, but officials were circumspect about his spending. Longtime board member Louis D’Allesandro, a New Hampshire state senator, would say only that Dobelle was “one of the most interesting men I have ever met. . . . You could take this guy and make him the subject of a magnificent novel.”
Dobelle brought that larger-than-life persona to Westfield State in early 2008, and almost immediately began spending money freely, especially from the university’s fund-raising arm, the Westfield State Foundation. Within months, foundation board minutes show that the foundation was spending faster than the money came in. And Dobelle was launching key initiatives, such as a celebrity speaker series that cost more than $800,000.
By September 2010, foundation officials had spent so much, including donations that had been earmarked for specific purposes, that their lawyer worried they could face a state investigation for negligence.
“It is clear that should it choose to do so, the Attorney General’s office could bring an action against the foundation and its directors for breach of its/their fiduciary and other duties,” foundation lawyer Mark A. Tanner warned in a Sept. 21, 2010, letter to the foundation obtained by the Globe.
On the same day, the foundation canceled Dobelle’s credit card, but only after he had charged more than $200,000 over a two-year period, including at least $20,000 in personal charges that he had to repay.
A few days later, Dobelle authorized a $400,000 loan of university funds to stabilize the foundation’s finances, a transaction drawing intense interest from investigators from both the Inspector General’s office and the office of Attorney General Martha Coakley. The foundation is supposed to raise money for the university, not the other way around, and it never repaid the loan.
Foley said he is troubled by Dobelle’s conduct, but said the trustees had no control over the foundation, where Dobelle did most of his spending. The trustees took action once they were made aware of the problem, Foley said, tightening credit card policies, requiring him to get advance approval for travel and finally launching a formal review of his expenses. “We stopped the guy from doing what he was doing,” said Foley.
But Rogers said the Westfield board did not do enough, noting that the eight other commonwealth universities from Bridgewater State to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams have the same volunteer board structure, but no leadership crisis.
“There are thousands of boards across Massachusetts with 1 percent of what Westfield’s budget and resources are,” Rogers said. “The level of care and oversight they provide is much better than what you have seen now at Westfield.”