Commonwealth to have greater oversight in Westfield State University president search

Last modified: Monday, March 03, 2014
As Westfield State University’s trustees ramp up their search for a new president, state education leaders will have more oversight than they did when Evan S. Dobelle was hired in 2007.

New guidelines for the search, selection, appointment and performance of state university and community college presidents went into effect last year and now give the state Department of Higher Education’s commissioner and board more pull when presidents are selected.

“My board is in a position to play a much stronger role in presidential searches,” state Commissioner of Higher Education Richard M. Freeland said. “We have new, significantly enhanced rules to play a role in the selection.”

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The new guidelines were in the works long before controversy erupted last year over Dobelle’s travel and spending habits. Dobelle resigned in November and filed two lawsuits against the university, claiming he was forced out by trustees.

Some questioned Westfield trustees’ decision to hire Dobelle given that he had earlier parted ways with the University of Hawaii under circumstances involving questionable spending of public dollars.

The new measures were approved by the Board of Higher Education in June 2013 in response to a mandate from state lawmakers for more direct involvement by the Department of Higher Education in presidential searches, performance reviews and compensation.

The commissioner and board now have a more active and hands-on role in the presidential search, with a voting seat on presidential search committees, involvement with interviews and input from the commissioner on job descriptions, appointment terms and pay.

“This does provide some additional firepower as part of that process,” Freeland said.

The guidelines address the use of executive search firms, allow the commissioner to review the pool of candidates before interviewing begins and give final approval of presidential appointments to the Board of Higher Education.

On Monday, Westfield trustees and interim President Elizabeth Preston are expected to begin discussing plans for WSU’s presidential search.

“The process begins with assembling a presidential search committee,” spokeswoman Molly Watson said. “The first steps would begin with campus discussions, developing criteria for what we’ll be looking for in a new president.”

She said she thinks the board will opt to hire a search firm.

Legal fees discussed

The board also is expected to vote on spending up to $1.2 million to pay the legal bills of Fish & Richardson, the firm that has been handling the university’s affairs related to ongoing investigations of Dobelle’s spending by the state inspector general and attorney general’s office, which have been underway since last year. The law firm continues to do work for the university, but it has slowed down significantly, said John F. Flynn III, trustees chairman.

“We have been able to absorb some of the costs operationally, but will have to pay for the majority of the expenses out of the university’s reserve funds,” Watson said.

To date, Fish & Richardson has provided approximately 130,000 pages of documentation to the office of the inspector general on behalf of WSU.

Legal expenses will not impact expenditures for the university’s education programs or services to students, according to Watson, and approximately a third of the anticipated legal costs have already been absorbed through administrative savings in the president’s office, postponement of new admissions publications and operating budget contingencies.

Performance oversight

Freeland, the state’s higher education commissioner, is now reading every annual presidential evaluation and sending letters to boards of trustees to follow up. He also is meeting with boards of all community colleges and state universities to discuss the presidential evaluation. Compensation is now partly tied to meeting statewide goals through what is known as Vision Project, and not only campus-level goals as was previously the case.

In the case of Dobelle, trustees had given the former president high marks on his annual evaluations, which had been submitted to the commissioner and the Board of Higher Education. However, a financial review commissioned by the university’s trustees and released last year revealed a pattern of questionable spending by Dobelle in which he and other staff used university credit cards for personal expenses, violating a “reasonable and not excessive” standard for business-related expenses by staff, among other issues.

Dobelle had said his many trips to Asian and European destinations, as well as San Francisco, were to raise the profile of the university and improve its financial position. He later reimbursed the university for many personal expenses charged to WSU credit cards.

Freeland said he believes WSU and state education officials should have been able to detect Dobelle’s spending patterns earlier than they did.

“This was an outlier situation,” Freeland said. “I don’t see this pattern of spending, this pattern of excess anywhere else in the system.”

He said it remains the role of boards of trustees to provide oversight with regard to fiscal and other matters at the state’s community colleges and universities.

“It’s really a wake-up call for local boards all over the state,” Freeland said.

Flynn said the outside review of Dobelle’s spending by accountants O’Connor & Drew was done to ensure public funds were being used appropriately — not as a vendetta against Dobelle, as the former president has claimed.

“I firmly believe he was spending money in a way that was not proper, imprudent and in violation of policy,” Flynn said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.