WESTFIELD, Mass. » The trustees of Westfield State University placed Evan Dobelle, the school’s president, on paid administrative leave early Thursday after a marathon meeting to discuss criticism that he charged personal expenses on university credit cards and spent lavishly on foreign travel.
The Republican newspaper of Springfield, Mass., reported that trustees appointed Elizabeth Preston, the school’s vice president for academic affairs, as interim president at least until Nov. 25, when a Boston law firm hired to investigate Dobelle’s expenditures is due to present its findings.
Dobelle, a former University of Hawaii president who resigned in 2004 after facing similar allegations, has defended his spending at Westfield and is expected to file a federal lawsuit challenging the decision by the trustees.
The trustees met behind closed doors past midnight Wednesday to discuss allegations against Dobelle.
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.
Dobelle contends that trustees Chairman Jack Flynn acted without authorization in hiring an accounting firm to review the president’s expense reports.
Dobelle did not comment after the meeting, but his spokesman, George Regan, issued a statement promising that a lawsuit would be filed naming Flynn, the board of trustees and Richard Freeland, the state’s commissioner of higher education, as defendants.
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.
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 frequented 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 bylaws.
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 any suspension would be challenged in court.
In a scathing letter sent to trustees last week, Freeland, the higher-education commissioner, 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.
Regan, a Boston-based public relations executive, dismissed Freeland’s letter as being part of a coordinated "smear campaign."
Prior to the trustees’ meeting Wednesday, a union representing university faculty and librarians voted no confidence in Dobelle by a wide margin. Sixty-four percent of the 215 teachers and librarians who voted agreed with the statement that "I have no confidence that Dr. Evan Dobelle can continue to effectively serve as president of Westfield State University," according to the executive committee of the Massachusetts State College Association.
Only 28 percent, or 61 teachers and librarians, said they were still confident in Dobelle’s leadership, but some went out of their way to praise Dobelle’s efforts to raise the university’s stature over the last seven years.
"Evan Dobelle is the finest president that Westfield State has ever had," said Laurie Simpson, director of the academic advising center and an adjunct faculty member. "I know the media story, and I know the real story. I have full confidence in Evan Dobelle. Many people here support the president."
Regan, Dobelle’s spokesman, rejected the vote of no confidence, noting that half of the faculty members and librarians did not vote at all. Over all, he claimed less than half of the union membership voted no confidence in his leadership.
"If President Dobelle had read the sensational headlines or had heard the avalanche of threats from Commissioner Freeland, who promised to withhold needed funds from WSU, he would be inclined to vote against himself, too," Regan said in a statement.
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.
"We have come to the realization that the president no longer has our trust," then-regents Chairwoman Patricia Lee said. Minutes of the meeting in which regents decided to fire him reveal questions about Dobelle’s honesty, integrity and competence; 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 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 got a severance package.
He boasted to the Boston Globe that he walked away with $3.8 million, not including the $1 million UH paid to his lawyers and $100,000 for his publicist.
The Associated Press and the Boston Globe contributed to this report.