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Lesson of Dobelle downfall: Think big, but spend wisely

Westfield State University has a chance to put scandal behind it, now that its free-spending president, Evan Dobelle, has resigned. Dobelle abruptly retired Friday after months of controversy over his use of university resources to pay for nights in five-star hotels, meals at high-end restaurants, and trips by limousine. While his travel expenditures were ostensibly in the service of raising Westfield State’s profile outside of Massachusetts, his efforts in that area seemed to yield only limited results.

Yet while Dobelle’s spending was excessive, the vision he articulated has some merits. Westfield State shouldn’t let Dobelle’s downfall dissuade its next president from seeking to upgrade the school’s image and taking an entrepreneurial approach to leadership.

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Westfield State is among the crop of former teachers colleges that have sought to reinvent themselves as full-fledged universities, partly with an eye toward attracting more outside grants and more tuition-paying students from out of state and overseas. These efforts, if successful, would yield more resources to finance the schools’ core mission — providing a solid, affordable education to Massachusetts students — at a time when state aid for higher education has not kept up with costs.

It wasn’t inconceivable that Dobelle would be the right leader for such an effort. As a former Pittsfield mayor and Carter administration chief of protocol, Dobelle had political expertise. His tenure as president of Trinity College in Hartford was widely viewed as a success. Had Dobelle delivered for Westfield State — and had his outreach to foundations on a controversial trip to San Francisco involved much more than having a staffer drop off information packets at front desks — his travel expenses would be easier to defend.

What happened during his tenure as president of the University of Hawaii should have been a warning sign, though: Dobelle acquired a reputation for questionable spending there, and he was eventually fired. While being considered for the Westfield job, Dobelle addressed questions about his Hawaii experience by intimating he’d lost out in a political tussle with the state’s Republican governor — an explanation that, in retrospect, Westfield State’s board failed to scrutinize adequately. Meanwhile, Dobelle has muddied the waters; his spokesman has alleged that one Westfield State board member has been trying to turn the school into a diploma mill for State Police officers, and that state Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland, a former Northeastern University president, was trying to muscle his way into Dobelle’s job at Westfield State. No evidence for either claim has yet materialized.

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All of this is an argument for Westfield State’s board to choose wisely when it picks Dobelle’s successor. The school, like other public institutions, needs a president who would address some nuts-and-bolts issues — about controlling costs and raising graduation rates. But the board should also look for a president with a farther-reaching vision for the school, and a sense of how to leverage the university’s strengths, such as its arts programs, into a national reputation that draws students from all over. The tragedy of Dobelle was that he had such a vision — but lacked any practical sense of limits.

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