State education officials announced plans Friday to freeze state funding for Westfield State University, including $2 million toward a new science building, after the school’s president, Evan Dobelle, failed to meet Thursday’s deadline for submitting a detailed defense of his controversial spending habits.
The move by Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland dramatically increases the pressure on Westfield State’s board of trustees to take action against Dobelle. The board has already scheduled a meeting for Oct. 16, when it could vote to suspend the president with pay.
Dobelle had asked Freeland for more time to respond to two reports that found he has repeatedly violated university credit card policy by charging large personal expenses to the school and the school’s fund-raising arm.
But Freeland refused, saying that Dobelle already had eight days to respond to his questions and that Dobelle has known for months that his lavish spending was under scrutiny. An accountant hired by Westfield State trustees gave Dobelle a draft of his report on expenditures last March.
“After careful consideration, Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland has rejected president Evan Dobelle’s 11th-hour request for additional time,” said spokeswoman Katy Abel, adding that Dobelle’s lawyer could not even specify what he could provide with the additional time.
“Given [Freeland’s] serious concerns about the administration of state funding at Westfield under president Dobelle’s leadership,” Abel said, he immediately suspended $197,762 in grant funding to the school. In addition, she said Freeland will urge the state to freeze a $2 million appropriation, part of the funding for the science center.
“Commissioner Freeland believes that President Dobelle owes Massachusetts taxpayers and members of the Westfield State community answers about the questionable expenditures of public funds,” she wrote. “He urges the president to provide these answers to the public without further delay.’’
A spokesman for Dobelle called Freeland’s response “bizarre,” noting that Dobelle had promised to give a full accounting of his spending, as well as the benefits to the university, no later than Monday night. The spokesman, George Regan, said Dobelle just needed a few extra days to assemble the documentation for his defense.
“Instead of waiting two days for a thoughtful, comprehensive response, Commissioner Freeland thinks he can blackmail the [Westfield State] board by threatening to victimize the WSU students and faculty,” Regan said in a written statement. “This is proof that Freeland does not care about the truth and cares only about exacting some kind of revenge against a good man and a great university president.”
Buzz Hoagland, chairman of the school’s biology department and president of the faculty union, said many faculty members are also frustrated with Dobelle, but he warned that any plan to withhold state funds “would be really, really bad.” He said the school’s proposed $33 million science center would be the first new academic building in more than 40 years.
“We are currently teaching students in biology labs constructed several years after they discovered DNA,” Hoagland said.
This week, several faculty members wrote Freeland urging him “not to take out your frustrations on the very hard-working students, staff, and faculty at Westfield State University.”
At the same time, Hoagland said that the faculty union is already planning to hold a vote in the next few days on “whether we want him [Dobelle] to continue to be our president,”
University trustees scheduled their Oct. 16 meeting to consider suspending Dobelle after Freeland and other state officials publicly scolded them for failing to rein in Dobelle who, Freeland said, repeatedly violated the state ethics law. Freeland said it was “one of the worst moments” of his 40-year career when he read about Dobelle’s lavish spending in the Globe.
“We should not wait” to act, trustee Kevin Queenin wrote in the e-mail requesting the special meeting, which Freeland plans to attend.
The controversy over Dobelle’s spending has mushroomed since August when the Globe reported that from 2008 to 2010 Dobelle charged more than $200,000 to a credit card from the university’s fund-
raising arm, prompting the Westfield State Foundation to cancel the card. Many of the charges were for personal expenses, some not paid back for months or even years.
Since then, an accountant hired by the trustees and the state inspector general has released reports faulting Dobelle for excessive spending on travel, meals, luxury hotels, and entertainment and for using university credit cards for personal expenses.
Freeland expressed his concerns directly to Dobelle in a closed-door meeting Sept. 20 and followed up five days later with a letter demanding detailed explanations about his use of university credit cards, as well as the inspector general’s allegation that he squandered donations to the school.
Freeland also asked Dobelle to provide evidence to back up his contentions that his spending has brought enormous returns to the school. Finally, Freeland wanted Dobelle’s response to a Globe report that said he provided trustees with a misleading account of a trip to San Francisco, suggesting that he had proposed $500,000 in grants at seven Bay-area charities, when in fact, he merely sent a staff member inside to drop off information packets.
Since Freeland delivered his list of questions to Dobelle, Dobelle has launched a no-holds-barred counterattack, portraying himself as the victim of a conspiracy by State Police to derail his ambitious agenda for Westfield State. The State Police, he charged, are using board chairman Jack Flynn, a senior State Police official, to advance their agenda of turning the school into a “diploma mill” for state troopers.
“The attack on President Dobelle’s reputation is an early Halloween disguise to mask the real issue, which involves influence peddling by chair Flynn . . . and his effort to funnel his trooper buddies through Westfield State,” said spokesman Regan.
Dobelle’s personal lawyer has also sought information, sending a freedom of information request to state officials demanding all e-mail and text messages between members of the board of trustees and the Patrick administration and all travel, expense, and reimbusement records for all other presidents of Massachusetts public colleges and universities.
But 11 minutes before the Thursday, 5 p.m., deadline for Dobelle to answer Freeland’s questions, he notified state officials that he could not do it. He said he needed an extension until Monday because he did not have some of the documents requested — his time sheets — which he said he had delivered to the lawyer for the board of trustees.
“Because of the significance of the matters raised and the amount of information requested, a response on such an expedited timeframe has not been possible,” Dobelle’s lawyer, Ross Garber, wrote in asking for a four-day extension.
But Freeland was not moved and immediately began cutting off state funding for Westfield State, while also promising to look for ways to end the crisis permanently.
“Commissioner Freeland and the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education will work with the Westfield board to find an appropriate resolution that would allow the state to resume funding of these projects,” said spokeswoman Abel.Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott Allen can be reached at email@example.com.