Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle abruptly retired Friday afternoon, departing the school with nothing but his pension as investigators for the school and two state agencies pored over records of his questionable spending of university resources on international travel, five-star hotels, limousines, and high-priced restaurants.
Dobelle received no severance or other payments from the university in exchange for his retirement, though he will be eligible for a state pension of about $90,000 a year. Dobelle, who was placed on paid leave by university trustees in October, had been trying to obtain a financial settlement in exchange for his resignation. But the trustees rejected his most recent proposal of six months’ pay and the title of president emeritus, according to someone briefed on the trustees’ reaction.
Instead, facing a report on his spending habits by university lawyers later this month, Dobelle announced his immediate retirement. In his letter of resignation, Dobelle blamed the trustees for forcing him out, saying they had violated his contract by placing him on leave.
“Of course, this was not my chosen path at this particular time,” wrote Dobelle, 68, who has been president since 2008. “It is instead the result of the university’s actions and failure to abide by the terms of my contract.”
Dobelle said his resignation would be best for the school, which was slapped with a partial freeze on state funding amid concerns about whether he could continue as president. Dobelle said he believed his retirement would lead to a lifting of the freeze.
“I have been led to believe that, under the current circumstances, my immediate retirement would be welcomed and would expedite the release of the money to fund the new academic building, which would be the first in over 40 years at the university,” Dobelle wrote.
As word filtered out among Dobelle’s critics at Westfield State last night, the reaction was immediate and joyful, as people hoped for an end to almost three months of intense and unwanted attention on the school of 5,400 students a few miles west of Springfield.
“It’s such great news,” said Sheridan Carey, a member of the executive committee of the Westfield State College Foundation, which raises private donations for the school. “. . . People are overjoyed. He put the campus through a horror show.”
State Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland, who has criticized Dobelle for what he termed a “clear and consistent pattern” of improperly using his university credit cards for personal expenses, also praised him for stepping down.
“I believe President Dobelle’s decision is in the best interest of Westfield State University,” Freeland said. “I look forward to working with new leadership to advance the mission of teaching and learning at the university.”
University board chairman Jack Flynn said he could not comment because of the lawsuit against him.
But several people praised the trustees for refusing to give Dobelle a severance package, unlike the University of Hawaii board of regents, which gave Dobelle a large financial settlement in 2004 after initially trying to fire him.
The controversy at Westfield State became public in mid-
August when the Globe reported on Dobelle’s free-spending ways, including a tab of nearly $150,000 to take a Westfield State delegation to Asia and $10,000 for tickets at Tanglewood, where Dobelle liked to take potential donors.
In late August, trustees released an accountant’s report showing that Dobelle had charged tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses to university-related credit cards and that many of his large business expenses lacked documentation.
Initially, most trustees rallied to Dobelle’s defense, even questioning the accountant’s findings. But since then, pressure has been mounting on them to take action, as the state inspector general and the attorney general each launched investigations while the state froze millions in funding for construction and other purposes.
Finally, after a 10-hour executive session Oct. 16, trustees unanimously voted to place Dobelle on paid leave, even demanding that he immediately turn in his university car. The trustees also asked attorneys at the law firm Fish & Richardson to investigate Dobelle’s spending and report back by Nov. 25.
Until now, Dobelle had fought back hard, hiring a public relations firm and a lawyer to counter the wave of criticism.
Publicist George Regan accused Flynn, the trustee chairman, of smearing Dobelle so that Flynn could gain control of the school, while attorney Ross Garber filed a federal lawsuit on Dobelle’s behalf against the trustees and Freeland, charging them with violating Dobelle’s rights.
The lawsuit said the ongoing investigations of Dobelle’s spending were just part of “guerrilla war for control of the university.”
But, behind the scenes, Dobelle was trying to negotiate a settlement with the school. The night he was placed on leave, Dobelle had said he would resign if the trustees gave him an immediate paid sabbatical and let him return as a tenured faculty member.
Unable to reach a deal, Dobelle announced Friday that he would retire from the job, which paid him an annual salary of $240,920. State pension records show Dobelle would be entitled to an annual pension of about $90,000, assuming that he pays the state to get pension credit for time he worked as a public employee in California.
However, a spokesman for Dobelle said that he planned to continue his lawsuit against the trustees and Freeland, which accuses them of “cowboy tactics” in their zeal to destroy Dobelle’s career.
Meanwhile, the investigations of spending by Dobelle and other senior administrative staff members are continuing. Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha already has found that Dobelle spent money earmarked for programs and scholarships “indiscriminately with little or no consideration” for its intended purpose, but Cunha is conducting a broader review.
Investigators for Attorney General Martha Coakley are examining whether Dobelle made illegal “false claims” to get reimbursement for dubious expenses, according to someone briefed on the investigation. For instance, Dobelle told trustees he was going on a fund-raising trip to San Francisco in May 2013, but it turned out he never went inside seven of the foundations he said he visited, sending a subordinate to drop off information instead.
Edward Marth, chairman of the Westfield State Foundation, said Dobelle’s departure would allow his group and others at the university to rebuild public confidence that they will not squander money.
Dobelle spent so much of the foundation’s money that the organization needed a $400,000 bailout from the school to pay its bills, and his free spending prompted one potential $100,000 donor to withdraw his pledge.
“I wasn’t really surprised” that Dobelle stepped down, said Marth. “I’ve seen enough people decide retirement is better than trying to slug it out when you can’t possibly win. There was no way.”