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Dobelle exits school's top post

UH's former president retires from Westfield following controversy over his spending

By Associated Press & Star-Advertiser staff

POSTED:


BOSTON » Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle, who filed a federal lawsuit against the school after being suspended last month by trustees, announced his retirement Friday.

Dobelle, who resigned as University of Hawaii's president nearly a decade ago, informed the Westfield board of trustees in a letter that he would retire, effective immediately. He had been at odds with trustees over criticism that he charged personal expenses on university credit cards and spent lavishly on foreign travel.

In the letter, released by a Boston-based public relations firm hired by Dobelle, he did not specifically refer to the controversy over his spending, but pegged his decision to retire on actions by the university that he said violated terms of his contract.

"Included among these actions is the so-called ‘administrative leave' on which I am currently placed, which is not permitted by my contract and has the effect of making it impossible for me to do my job," Dobelle wrote.

In the letter he noted that his contract required him to give a longer period of notice before retiring, but said that under the circumstances he believed his immediate retirement "would be welcomed" and would expedite the release of state funds for a new academic building at the school.

A statement from Regan Communications said Dobelle would not be available for further comment Friday.

Dobelle's attorney, Ross Garber, said he did not want to comment beyond the contents of the letter.

(Dobelle's troubles at Westfield are similar to his controversial tenure at UH from 2001 to 2004. UH regents unanimously voted to fire him in 2004 amid charges of lavish spending, dishonesty and wasting university resources. Dobelle said he was a victim of a vendetta by then-Gov. Linda Lingle and fought back with lawyers, threatening to sue UH for wrongful termination. The regents reached a settlement and Dobelle resigned.)

Shortly after his suspension by Westfield trustees last month, Dobelle, 68, filed a federal lawsuit against the university trustees and state Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland, in which he alleged that trustees had conspired to damage his reputation and violate his rights.

The lawsuit portrayed Dobelle as victim of a "guerrilla war for control of the University," and alleged breach of contract, defamation and civil conspiracy among other things.

Freeland, in a statement, said he believed Dobelle's decision to retire was in the school's best interest.

"I look forward to working with new leadership to advance the mission of teaching and learning at the University," said Freeland.

Auditors hired by trustees 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 has also responded to criticism that he spent on luxury hotels and restaurants during overseas trips, saying his spending was "strategically planned" and brought a significant return on investment for the school.

A one-time mayor of Pittsfield, Mass., Dobelle served as president of several institutions, including UH and City College of San Francisco, before becoming president of Westfield in 2007.

In his letter Dobelle thanked faculty, students, alumni and others who had supported him. He said he had concluded that retirement was the only way for the university to move beyond the "unnecessary and unfortunate distractions" and "gratuitous media attention" of recent months.

Elizabeth Preston, the school's vice president for academic affairs, was named acting president following Dobelle's suspension in October.






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