State officials on Friday called on trustees at Westfield State University to publicly release the results of a review the board is conducting of Evan S. Dobelle, the university’s president, who has a history of charging high expenses to a foundation that supports the school.
In a letter to the chairman of the Westfield board, Massachusetts Secretary of Education Matthew H. Malone said a recent Boston Globe story about Dobelle’s pattern of charges raised concerns about “the limited accountability of public universities.”
The Globe reported Sunday that Dobelle had charged more than $200,000 — including spending on stays at a luxury hotel, limousine rides, and clothes from Louis Boston — to the Westfield State College Foundation, a private group that supports university scholarships and programs. The foundation took his credit card away in 2010 and Dobelle agreed to reimburse the organization for more than $20,000. But the president continued to charge personal trips and expenses to the university, sometimes through the credit card of his assistant.
“The issues raised call into question the efficient and effective use of taxpayer funds, and undermine the good and important work taking place on our state campuses throughout the Commonwealth,” Malone added.
Dobelle said he looks forward to Thursday’s board of trustees meeting, after which the review will be made public.
“Over the past several years Westfield State University has emerged to become one of America’s best values in higher education,” Dobelle said in a statement Friday evening. “The investments by the state, our wonderful students, and our world class faculty have launched careers and changed lives. These investments will pay enormous dividends for years to come.”
John Flynn, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, said the auditor’s report will likely be available after the board’s meeting on Thursday.
“I fully embrace and echo the secretary’s concerns about the proper use of taxpayer funds at our university,” Flynn said in a statement.
In the letter, Malone and Governor Deval Patrick instructed Flynn to brief Malone and state Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland about the report.
“We have expressed our concern about the limited accountability of public universities for their expenditures. The recent press reports about the use of university funds by President Evan Dobelle have again raised these concerns,” Malone said.
Among Dobelle’s expenses were 76 out-of-state trips in his 68 months, including a 10-person, $118,000 delegation to Asia; $539,201 for a two-year celebrity speaker series featuring feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem; and thousands of dollars in hotel and restaurant bills for university guests.
In an interview with Globe reporters, Dobelle called himself an education visionary whose personal connections, though sometimes expensive to cultivate, have made Westfield State a better-recognized institution worldwide.
He became president in 2007, and in his time there he has frozen tuition while increasing financial aid by more than 50 percent. During Dobelle’s presidency, Westfield State reached the 108th spot among regional universities in the north in the US News and World Report rankings.
Dobelle has also earmarked $3 million for new faculty members and $170 million for construction to improve the experience of his students, whom he called “throwaway kids” without many advantages.
This is not the first time Dobelle has come under scrutiny. In 2004, he was fired as president of the University of Hawaii amid concerns over high spending. The university’s board of regents said it “lost trust” in Dobelle after hefty expenses for campus events, travel, and a renovation to the president’s mansion. The board later backtracked, rescinding the dismissal after Dobelle said he would sue and terminating his contract at a cost of $3.8 million.
In the Globe interview, Dobelle said he may have accidentally charged the university and foundation for personal expenses, but has repaid his debts.
“When I spend money, that’s what I’m doing: I do things for kids,” he said. “Were there errors? Yes. Were there errors of intent? No.”Gal Tziperman Lotan
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