WESTFIELD — Westfield State University trustees unanimously voted to place president Evan Dobelle on administrative leave with pay after a marathon, 10-hour meeting Wednesday, while a law firm investigates allegations about Dobelle’s spending and the board’s “leadership concerns.”
Trustee chairman Jack Flynn announced at 12:30 a.m. Thursday that Dobelle would remain on paid leave while the law firm Fish & Richardson completes its inquiry into Dobelle’s spending habits, expected by Nov. 25. Thomas C. Frongillo, a principal in the firm, has been representing the trustees in their negotiations with Dobelle.
Dobelle, who spent hours with trustees at their closed-door session accompanied by his attorney, left without speaking to reporters. But Dobelle’s publicist, George Regan, issued a scathing statement saying that Dobelle plans to file a federal lawsuit against the trustees for the “egregious” violation of his rights.
“We are disappointed that the board has acted unlawfully and has obviously buckled to the intense political pressure surrounding this issue,” Regan said in the statement. “The board has defamed president Dobelle and allowed him to be defamed and there will be major consequences to these actions.”
The vote to place Dobelle on leave came at the end of a day on which the faculty and librarians taking part in a vote at Westfield State overwhelmingly expressed no confidence in Dobelle’s leadership. It also came as Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office launched an investigation into whether Dobelle made illegal false claims to obtain reimbursement for his expenses.
The trustees called Wednesday’s special meeting in the face of mounting pressure to take action after an outside accountant’s report in August found that Dobelle had repeatedly violated university policy by charging personal expenses to university credit cards. The accountant also said documentation for tens of thousands in expenses was so scant that he could not tell whether they were legitimate.
But when the report by O’Connor & Drew was released in August, several board members challenged its legitimacy since the full board never approved it. Dobelle contends that the board’s chairman, Flynn, a State Police executive, authorized the expense review as part of a plot to turn Westfield State into a “diploma mill” for the State Police.
Since then, state Inspector General Glenn Cunha has raised his own serious questions about Dobelle’s extensive business travel, luxury hotel stays, meals at high-end restaurants, and entertainment all charged to the school. Meanwhile, state Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland has frozen some state funding to Westfield State, citing concern about Dobelle’s ability to manage money.
“It seems to me highly questionable whether president Dobelle can or should continue to provide leadership to Westfield State University,” Freeland wrote to the trustees last week.
On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office sent a letter to trustees announcing that prosecutors will be looking into whether Dobelle made any false claims to justify his business expenses, according to someone with direct knowledge of the letter. In 2010, Dobelle had to repay $20,000 in business expenses after an auditor determined that the charges were personal, which Dobelle blamed on clerical errors.
Under the state False Claims Act, the attorney general can impose fines and seek to recover up to three times the amount of the actual damages from anyone who lies or misleads in order to obtain state funds. The letter to Flynn asked for extensive documentation of Dobelle’s expenses, according to the person with direct knowledge.
There were few outward signs of support for Dobelle at Wednesday’s meeting, in contrast to the August trustees meeting when the board room was packed with student supporters. This time, roughly 20 students in attendance protested Dobelle’s conduct, some carrying signs reading, “Don’t reward greed” or “throwaway kids fight back,” in reference to Dobelle’s description of the disadvantages faced by Westfield State students.
“He should know, ethically, that [by] taking money from your school, even if it’s to create a brand, you’re taking away resources from the students,” said Westfield State senior Victor Martinez-Diaz, who said he has borrowed $34,000 for his education so far and helped organize the protest. “How could you be so careless budgeting your money?”
Just before the trustees went into a closed executive session shortly after 2 p.m., representatives of the faculty union gave them the results of their no confidence vote:
Sixty-four percent of the 215 faculty and librarians who voted over the last four days agreed with the statement that “I have no confidence that Dr. Evan Dobelle can continue to effectively serve as president of Westfield State University,” according to the executive committee of the Massachusetts State College Association, which represents the school’s teachers and librarians.
“I’m appalled. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated,” said Westfield State education professor Robin DiAngelo, explaining why she voted “no confidence” in Dobelle. “I want it to be over, but I want it to be over with a satisfying ending: Termination.”
Only 28 percent, or 61 teachers and librarians, said they were still confident in Dobelle’s leadership, some praising Dobelle’s efforts to raise the university’s stature over the last seven years.
“Evan Dobelle is the finest president that Westfield State has ever had,” said Laurie Simpson, director of academic advising center, and an adjunct faculty member.
“I know the media story and I know the real story. I have full confidence in Evan Dobelle. . . . Many people here support the president.”
Dobelle’s spokesman, Regan, rejected the vote of no confidence, noting that half of the faculty members and librarians did not participate in the vote. Over all, he claimed less than half of the union membership voted no confidence in his leadership.
“If president Dobelle had read the sensational headlines or had heard the avalanche of threats from commissioner Freeland, who promised to withhold needed funds from WSU, he would be inclined to vote against himself too,” Regan said in a statement.