WESTFIELD, Mass. >> Westfield State University named an interim leader today, hours after the school’s board of trustees voted to suspend president Evan Dobelle amid criticism that he charged personal expenses on school credit cards and spent lavishly on foreign travel.
Elizabeth Preston, the school’s vice president for academic affairs, will serve as acting president in Dobelle’s absence and oversee the day-to-day operations of the university.
“We share a deep and abiding commitment to the mission of the University and to our students,” Preston wrote in a letter to faculty and staff. “That passion for the institution has resulted in heated debate over the past few weeks but is also a source of strength for us as we wrestle with the challenges we now face.”
Dobelle, a former University of Hawaii president, has defended his spending and is expected to file a federal lawsuit challenging the decision by trustees.
Following a lengthy meeting, trustees chairman John Flynn said the voted unanimously early today to put Dobelle on paid administrative leave while a private law firm hired by the university conducted an investigation into “spending, employment and leadership” at the university as well as its fundraising arm, Westfield State Foundation. The results of the investigation are due Nov. 25, Flynn said.
State higher education Commissioner Richard Freeland had earlier frozen discretionary state funding for Westfield and criticized Dobelle, saying the “reckless manner” he acted in had damaged the university’s reputation.
Dobelle did not comment after the meeting but his personal spokesman, George Regan, issued a statement promising that a lawsuit would be filed naming Freeland, Flynn and the board of trustees.
Flynn and the council’s executive committee “conducted an illegal investigation against President Dobelle and they will have to answer to much more serious charges than the allegations that had been manufactured against Mr. Dobelle,” Regan said.
“The Board has defamed President Dobelle and allowed him to be defamed and there will be major consequences to these actions,” said Regan.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office sent a letter to the trustees launching an investigation into whether Dobelle made illegal false claims to obtain reimbursement for his expenses. Dobelle charged more than $200,000 in expenses to one university-related card in a two-year period, much of it on travel, luxury hotels, and high-end restaurants.
Prior to the trustees’ meeting Wednesday, a union representing faculty and librarians at the state university voted no confidence in Dobelle by a more than 2-1 margin.
University auditors reported in August that Dobelle and other top officials violated school policy by charging personal expenses to school credit cards. Dobelle has said he was following past practice and fully reimbursed Westfield for the personal charges.
Dobelle, who has led the university since 2007, has also responded to criticism that he spent on luxury hotels and restaurants during overseas trips, saying the spending was “strategically planned” and brought a significant return on investment for the school.
Dobelle has tried to turn the tables on several of the trustees, including Flynn, claiming they have acted vindictively and violated university bylaw.
In a Sept. 25 letter, Dobelle’s private attorney, Ross Garber, said Flynn hired the auditing firm without authorization from the full board and that he met with two other trustees in violation of the state’s open meeting laws. Garber previously said that any suspension would be challenged in court.
Dobelle has been harshly criticized by Richard Freeland, the state’s commissioner of higher education. In a scathing letter sent to trustees last week, Freeland said the “reckless manner” in which Dobelle acted had damaged the university’s reputation.
The power to discipline or remove the president lies solely with trustees, but Freeland has frozen discretionary state funding for Westfield and urged the board to act Wednesday. He did not specify what action he preferred.
George Regan, a Boston-based public relations executive hired by Dobelle, dismissed Freeland’s letter as being part of a coordinated “smear campaign.”
Dobelle’s troubles at the Massachusetts university are similar to his controversial tenure at the UH from 2001 to 2004.
UH regents in 2004 unanimously voted to fire him amid charges of lavish spending, dishonesty, and wasting university resources.
“We have come to the realization that the president no longer has our trust,” then-regents chairwoman Patricia Lee said in revealing the decision. Minutes of the meeting where they decided to fire him reveal that others questioned Dobelle’s honesty, integrity, and competence and one said he “could not take another year of the president’s lies and deceptions.”
Dobelle said he was a victim of a vendetta by the Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, and he fought back with lawyers and a Los Angeles public relations firm.
He threatened to sue for wrongful termination and challenged the regents to come up with a specific reason why they were terminating his 10-year contract. The regents balked and paid off Dobelle, who resigned and received a severance package.
Dobelle boasted to the Boston Globe that he walked away from the UH with $3.8 million, not including the $1 million the university paid to his lawyers and $100,000 for his publicist.
The Boston Globe contributed to this report.