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Ex-UH president defends spending at Massachusetts university

  • This 2002 file photo shows former University of Hawaii President Evan Dobelle at kickoff ceremony for Hawaii Skills Community

WESTFIELD » Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle Thursday night rejected a review that found he violated policies on travel and personal use of credit cards, calling it "defaming" and "illegal" because the full board of trustees did not approve it in advance.

Dobelle declined to address the details at a special trustees meeting called to release the long-awaited report, which was made public at the end of the two-hour meeting. But Dobelle defended his record, saying that much of the spending detailed in the report had brought an enormous return to the school. His controversial trip to China, which cost $140,000, led to an increase in international students coming to Westfield State, he said.

”I’m deeply proud of what our university has accomplished," he said. "I was hired by Westfield State to be an agent of change . . . to take us to the next level," he added. "We have done exactly that."

The auditor who prepared the report, David A. DiIulis of the firm O’Connor and Drew, presented his findings, but did not go into detail. "There were some violations of university policy," he said, referring to Dobelle’s use of credit cards for personal expenses.

But a portion of the report, previously obtained by the Globe, cites scores of questionable expenditures including more than $3,000 for Boston Symphony Orchestra tickets, $975 for tickets to see folk singer Arlo Guthrie, and a $1,000 donation to the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University. It showed that Dobelle mixed personal spending with business in racking up more than $180,000 on a credit card issued to him by the private fund-raising arm of the school, the Westfield State College Foundation.

The review was completed in March, but the auditors were waiting for Dobelle to respond. Last week, he informed them he would not provide a written response. He said he preferred to meet face to face with the accountants, but they said he was intimidating.

Dobelle said the full board of trustees never approved the decision to undertake the review, only the executive committee, which agreed in secret meetings to hire O’Connor and Drew, he said.

Dobelle said that from start to finish the review process was invalid. "I felt a responsibility to adhere to . . . the laws of the Commonwealth. I’m not going to participate in something that shuts out the majority of the board members and is illegal."

He said the documents presented to him were defaming, and provided no context for why he spent the money. And, he added, a university lawyer told him the report was "not a professional product because of syntax, use of cliches," and excessive opinions.

Several members of the board praised Dobelle, saying his biggest mistake was not telling his story of accomplishment sooner.

”I’ve noticed and admired the visionary qualities of Dr. Dobelle," said Terrell M. Hill, a 1992 Westfield State alumnus and board member. "When you’re a visionary and you try to do something great and meaningful, you’re going to have detractors."

”You’re my hero," responded Dobelle, referring to Hill’s work as the principal of a high school in Connecticut.

Board chairman Jack Flynn acknowledged Dobelle’s accomplishments, but added that the board must still grapple with the spending controversy and the fallout it has wrought. At least one major donor has withdrawn a promised $100,000 donation.

”There’s some responsibility here to clean things up," Flynn said. "It doesn’t detract from the good things that have been accomplished here, but it doesn’t excuse it. This is going to take time. . . . I’m having a hard time figuring out how we get through it."

Flynn acknowledged that the executive committee discussed the review privately. "The executive committee spent a lot of time working on this issue and trying to resolve it. We understood quite candidly that this was a bit of an embarrassment both to the university and the people mentioned in the documents. My intent was to try to resolve this informally."

The trustees appeared to be divided at Thursday’s meeting.

Flynn withdrew a motion to place a moratorium on air travel by Dobelle and other administrators until the spending matter was resolved after it became clear it would not pass.

The board approved a second motion delaying any final action until October to give the Massachusetts inspector general time to conduct its own investigation.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office oversees public charities like the school’s foundation, is investigating.

The 32-page review covered spending by Dobelle and top administrators using university funds and foundation money.

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