WESTFIELD — The boosters at Westfield State University wanted to support their ambitious new president in his quest to make the former teachers college into an educational powerhouse. So the school's private foundation gave Evan S. Dobelle a credit card to pay what were meant to be "generally small amounts" for fund-raising expenses, such as meals with donors.
Then, in the fall of 2008, they started getting Dobelle's bills: $8,000 for a four-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok; $883 from the upscale clothing store Louis Boston; $10,000 for tickets to shows at Tanglewood; more than $4,000 for limousine rides.
By the time the Westfield State College Foundation closed Dobelle's credit card two years later, records show he had run up more than $200,000 in credit card charges to the foundation, a private group that raises money for scholarships and educational programs. Dobelle also agreed to repay more than $20,000 in expenditures he originally charged to the foundation.
But Dobelle's free spending continued, university records show. He started racking up charges on his executive assistant's university credit card, incurring thousands in expenses in the name of Nanci Salvidio, including personal items such as $875 for a 2011 stay at a five-star London hotel that wasn't repaid for more than a year, according to an expense report.
Now, the spending of Dobelle, a self-described visionary who compared himself to such luminaries as Apple founder Steve Jobs and education reformer Horace Mann, may be catching up to him. University trustees are about to release a review of Dobelle's spending that was triggered by an anonymous leak of his spending reports. The state inspector general as well as the attorney general have launched investigations, too, bringing tension — and suspicions — to the usual quiet of a college campus in summer.
To Dobelle, a former Pittsfield mayor who left his previous post as president of the University of Hawaii amid criticism of his big spending, he's a victim of his own success. He says he's made Westfield State "the hottest college in New England," launching a $170 million building program, and some people are fixating on small mistakes to trip him up — like the times he accidentally used the university credit card for personal expenses, mistaking it for one of his own.
"I'm a change agent. You know you're going to take a hit," said Dobelle, who is paid $240,920 to oversee the 5,400-student university about 10 miles west of Springfield.
He said that there are explanations for all the bills, including the stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, where he was leading a mission to boost Westfield State's international stature. He said the Far East tour, which ran up $145,000 in bills for the 10-person delegation, yielded connections that have helped Westfield attract a small number of Asian students and sent Westfield students to study in Asia.
Dobelle said the 76 out-of-state trips he has taken in his 68 months as president were aimed at improving the lives of Westfield students, many of them "throwaway kids," as he put it, with few advantages. He said he used a $938 roundtrip limo ride to New York City in December 2009 to treat three journalism students like "queens for a day," taking them to see the CBS News, meet Katie Couric, and dine at Stage Deli and 21 Club.
"When I spend money, that's what I'm doing. I do things for kids," said Dobelle, who acknowledged that he may have inadvertently charged personal expenses to the school or the foundation. "Were there errors? Yes. Were there errors of intent? No."
Dobelle also frequently combined personal and business travel, making his expenses difficult to disentangle. He said he charged the university for a business trip to San Francisco, then went at his own expense to a nearby all-men's retreat, Bohemian Grove, for a vacation. He said he saw no problem with indirectly using university resources to go to a club that excludes women, saying, "I'm not invited to my wife's book club."
But the state's former longtime inspector general said Dobelle's pattern of spending suggests a basic lack of restraint in the use of other people's money, whether it's from the foundation that provides about $250,000 a year for educational programs or from the university itself. He noted that most Westfield students rely on financial aid to pay for college.
"Administrators like this guy treat themselves like some kind of royalty and the cost is passed on," said Gregory Sullivan, research director of Pioneer Institute and state inspector general for 10 years until 2012.
Some public officials in Hawaii say Westfield State should have known what they were getting when they hired Dobelle. University of Hawaii regents initially fired Dobelle in 2004, saying they had "lost trust" after years of clashes and high spending on everything from renovating the president's mansion to travel. The board rescinded the firing when Dobelle threatened to sue, and Dobelle said it paid him $3.8 million to terminate his 10-year contract, but the ill will lingers.
"I can't believe you guys hired him," said Hawaii Senate president Donna Mercado Kim, a longtime Dobelle critic who asked for an audit of his spending after he took donors to a Janet Jackson concert. "You really have to do your homework. With the Internet and computers, there's really no excuse."
But Thomas Foley, chairman of the Westfield State board of trustees at the time Dobelle was hired, said board members dismissed the Hawaii controversy because the regents reversed course on the firing and paid Dobelle a large settlement. "He was the best candidate who was in front of us at that time," Foley said in an interview. "People in Hawaii can say what they want. Everyone can do Monday morning quarterbacking."
Board chairman Jack Flynn, who commissioned the review of Dobelle's spending after someone leaked a stack of his expenses, said he just wants to know whether public money and private donations have been spent appropriately.
"I have a good deal of respect for President Dobelle. . . . He's done more for that school than anyone in 30 years in terms of the institution's standing within the higher ed community," said Flynn, whose review has already cost $58,000.
Dobelle, 68, is a larger than life figure at Westfield State. He was the former chief of protocol under President Jimmy Carter, and his memento-filled office is lined with photos of him with presidents back to Gerald Ford. Indeed, Dobelle is a relatively late convert to academia — he got his bachelor's degree at age 37 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst — and says people still suspect he's running for something in almost every state he works.
When he ran City College of San Francisco in the 1990s, people speculated he would run for mayor, Dobelle said. During his time as presidents of Trinity College in Connecticut and then the University of Hawaii, his name was bandied about as a candidate for governor.
But Dobelle said he lost his taste for politics. "I channel Horace Mann," he said, referring to the legendary politician turned education reformer who founded Westfield State in 1838, creating a national model for teacher training. "I don't wait. I make things happen and that makes you very popular with people and it scares politicians who don't make changes."
Even critics say that Dobelle has raised the aspirations and the stature of Westfield State. Long a major producer of teachers and police officers, Westfield State recently changed its name from "college" to "university" to reflect broader ambitions, and Dobelle has set aside $3 million to hire new faculty.
And the building boom, including a spacious 450-bed dormitory set to open in September, has given the campus a jolt of energy. Sure, Dobelle said, he could have built a standard dorm for a lot less than the $55 million University Hall — with its elegant wood, brick, and glass exterior — but he wanted an iconic building that reflected what students wanted.
"I invest in things that have ROIs," said Dobelle, using the business jargon for return on investment. The pricey dorm, he said, helps build Westfield State's brand — "private quality and public value" — which, in his view, has a return on investment that's incalculable.
From the start, however, it was clear Dobelle's vision would be expensive. He saw a school that was too parochial — 93 percent of students are from Massachusetts and the school had few international connections — and didn't even get along with its host community.
"We had a serious town-gown" issue, said Dobelle. "We were separated by a mile, but it might as well have been 100 miles."
So Dobelle set out to solve both problems, knowing it would cost millions. To bring the town of Westfield closer to the college, he launched a free celebrity speakers' series ranging from cultural icons like Gloria Steinem and Dr. Ruth to stars of yesterday like Bowzer of the 1950s-style band Shanana. The events drew over 16,000 people, but they were not cheap, costing the foundation more than $500,000 in speakers' fees, accommodations, and other expenses in 2009 and 2010 alone, records show.
But Dobelle said the series did its job, getting skeptical local residents to think "Westfield State must be more than we thought it was." Meanwhile, Dobelle said he took the Westfield brand international, authorizing about $250,000 in foreign travel by Westfield State officials over the last few years.
Dobelle spent more on the 2008 Asia trip alone than the $92,000 that Governor Deval Patrick spent to take two dozen officials on a trade mission to Britain and Israel in 2011. But Dobelle said the only unusually expensive item was the luxury hotel bill in Bangkok, and there was a reason for it: The consultant who helped plan the trip said that Thai officials wouldn't take Westfield State seriously if they didn't put on a good show.
"She would say, 'Who the f--- will come and listen to Westfield State when they only have time for Cornell? You better set yourself up in a way to show a certain degree of prominence and respect to them," recalled Dobelle. "So fine, that's what we did."
But the combined effects of Dobelle's extensive travel bills — he charged $118,000 of the Asia trip to the foundation — and the costs of the speakers' series left the foundation unable to pay its bills, requiring a $425,000 loan from the university in 2010. However, because the foundation is a separate organization from Westfield State, the depth of its problems were unknown even to university board members.
Moreover, board records show, foundation officials had a recurring problem with Dobelle not paying back clearly personal expenses — such as travel costs for his wife or son — for weeks, months, or even longer.
Dobelle said he voluntarily decided to give up his foundation credit card in late 2010 because both he and the clerical staff kept making mistakes about which bills were personal — and had to be repaid — and which were business. "I got tired of human error," Dobelle said. "I said, 'Here is the foundation card and the college credit card. I'm tired of this.' "
But foundation records paint a different picture: On Sept. 21, 2010, Sheridan Carey, then chairman of the foundation board, wrote a letter to Dobelle and three other administrators who had foundation cards, saying that "it is necessary to immediately halt credit card expenses" in order to "ensure the financial viability of the foundation."
Three days later, the foundation's auditor told the board Dobelle had "charged over $20,000 of purchases on his foundation credit card that were subsequently reimbursed." The auditor recommended no one be allowed to make personal charges to the foundation in the future.
Dobelle said that, after he turned in his credit cards, he was determined to pay expenses personally and then seek reimbursement. But he soon started charging expenses to the university credit card of Nanci Salvidio, his former executive assistant who is now associate vice president.
By mid-2011, Dobelle was charging thousands of dollars in business travel to San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina on Salvidio's card, along with other costly items such as $429 for a night at the Hyatt Harborside in Boston and $978 for a group luncheon at the Red Lion Inn in West Stockbridge. He also charged his wife's airfare to San Antonio on Salvidio's card, though the Dobelles promptly repaid it.
In addition, Dobelle charged $875 for a personal trip to London on Salvidio's card, a charge that he did not pay back for 15 months and that Dobelle now agrees was inappropriate.
In an interview, Dobelle struggled to explain why he used Salvidio's card for his expenses even after he had gotten another university credit card of his own in 2011.
"There is no question this is a confusing story. I'm not sure I can explain it," said Dobelle. "The reality is . . . there was no intent to do anything wrong. Was it done messily? No question. Was everything reimbursed? Yes. Has everything been straightened out? Yes."
Now, Dobelle said the university's reimbursement policy requires full documentation of every expenditure, and his staff said he pays back any personal items promptly.
However, the credit card policy hasn't stopped Dobelle from charging luxury items to the Westfield State Foundation, the private fund-raising group. When Dobelle's old friend, retired George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg, spoke at a commencement for a small group of graduate students in 2012, Dobelle put him up at the luxurious Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox, where rooms run from about $900 to $2,000 a night.
Dobelle defends the accommodations, noting that Trachtenberg didn't ask for a speaker's fee. Plus, he said, he was building Westfield's reputation by putting his prominent guest in such a splendid hotel.
The chairman of the foundation, Robert A. Johnson, resigned in July, writing to his colleagues that the foundation has "a culture with a values-set that is wholly incompatible with mine. . . . It is my firm belief that, given the current climate, success is not only unlikely; it is nearly impossible."
Johnson, a retired nonprofit executive, declined to discuss his resignation, but others said he was referring to Dobelle's resistance to making public the details of his spending, which are contained in the review authorized by the trustees. During Dobelle's tenure, the amount spent by the foundation on scholarships and educational programs has gone down, according to foundation reports to the IRS, even as Dobelle's discretionary spending has risen.
But Dobelle said, overall, Westfield State has prospered while he has been at the helm, rising in the US News and World Report rankings to 108th among regional universities in the north, while he has frozen tuition and increased university spending on financial aid by more than 50 percent. He also stressed that the people at the university and the foundation have followed his vision voluntarily.
"I have never tried to dominate an institution," Dobelle explained. "I'm a facilitator. I'm much more of a Mickey Drexler [the CEO of J Crew] or Steve Jobs. I learned from them," when he served on The Gap board of directors.
He said he welcomes the investigations as well as the release of the internal review, saying, "I would be stunned if the audit found one thing that wasn't accounted for."