Quiet Westfield State University has become better known in recent weeks for all the wrong reasons, but its trustees have a chance to wipe the slate clean when they meet Wednesday.
All that will require is firing Evan Dobelle, and they should.
Dobelle is the high-flying, free-spending college president who has deeply harmed the college by spending its precious dollars on a self-aggrandizing bid for influence.
Dobelle’s out-of-control spending on fancy restaurants, lavish hotels, and first-class travel nearly bankrupted the schools’ foundation. Dobelle took a delegation to Asia with $148,000 of the foundation’s money.
That’s not all: He also charged $200,000 over two years on his school credit card, including at least $20,000 in personal charges that he was forced to repay. He authorized a loan of $400,000 from the university to its foundation — money the foundation wouldn’t have needed but for the funds Dobelle took out of it. Almost all of those constitute firing offenses. The foundation, incidentally, has never repaid the loan.
Dobelle is a one-time wunderkind who served as director of protocol in the Carter White House. And, like a man who is no stranger to hot water, he has lashed out at those who have dared to question his dubious stewardship in academia.
Indeed, in the weeks since his lavish ways became public knowledge, he has embarked on a scorched-earth campaign to convince the public that Massachusetts is conspiring against him. In this alternate universe, the chairman of the board of trustees is out to get him because Dobelle opposes his bid to turn the school into a “diploma mill” for the Massachusetts State Police. And in Dobelle’s altered view, his boss, Higher Education chairman Richard Freeland, wants his job.
Dobelle’s spokesman, public relations maven George K. Regan, described Dobelle’s troubles as the result of a reformer’s clash with an entrenched culture. Regan said a lot of things. But one thing he never said was that Dobelle hadn’t been irresponsible with the school’s money.
As the Globe’s Scott Allen and Andrea Estes reported Sunday, Dobelle has a history of profligate spending. He was run out of the University of Hawaii in 2004 over allegations similar to the ones at Westfield State — right down to running up huge charges at the same hotel in Asia. The board there allowed him to leave with a big settlement, backing down from firing him after he threatened to sue.
That may well be his strategy at Westfield State too. He certainly isn’t talking like a man who wants to make peace or settle in for the long haul.
It would be a shame for the Westfield trustees to blink. But their actions up to this point inspire anything but confidence. Dobelle got glowing reviews for years while he was pillaging the foundation, and even now the lack of outrage from board members is striking. Like so many boards, they seem intimidated by the CEO they are supposed to be managing.
During the Dobelle crisis, I’ve thought about another former head of a public institution in Massachusetts.
Robert V. Ward Jr. was the first president of the law school at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In fact he engineered the absorption of the Southern New England School of Law into the state system. But he was forced out in 2011 for charging about $2,300 in personal expenses to his state credit card. He paid the money back, but he was still sent packing.
Ward’s transgression was significant, but it is small potatoes compared with Dobelle’s excesses. Maybe Ward would have survived if, like Dobelle, he had the right PR spokesman, or if he had a stint in the White House on his resume.
Maybe Wednesday will be the day that someone takes a stand for treating offenses equally. Glittering resume or no, Dobelle has no serious argument for keeping his job. Giving him a huge settlement would be an outrage, too. Westfield State has already given him far more than he has given it.