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Editorial: Westfield State president’s spending highly questionable

Evan Dobelle, president of Westfield State University.

Evan Dobelle, president of Westfield State University. Purchase photo reprints »

Westfield State University President Evan S. Dobelle is under scrutiny for travel expenses he billed to taxpayers and the school’s private donors. It is too soon to know if Dobelle broke laws, but his use of university credit cards and the school’s private donations appear lavish and highly questionable, particularly for the leader of a public institution.

The findings of an audit requested last year by Westfield State trustees are due this month. The public has a right to see the full report, which cost taxpayers $58,000, as well as the minutes of trustees meetings where the preliminary audit findings were reviewed with Dobelle. The public must also see the results of the state inspector general’s review of Dobelle’s travel expenses.

The Boston Globe has reported some details of the spending under scrutiny.

For example, starting in 2008 Dobelle charged more than $200,000 in travel, meals and entertainment for himself and others to the Westfield State Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money for scholarships and educational programs.

Using a foundation credit card, he spent $8,000 for a four-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok; $10,000 for tickets to shows at Tanglewood; $4,000 for limousine rides. He later paid back $20,000 to the foundation, which canceled his credit card in 2010 because the foundation was broke.

Dobelle then took to using the university credit card of his executive assistant for travel expenses. The Globe report noted that Dobelle took 76 out-of-state trips in the past 68 months.

The 68-year-old Dobelle earns $240,900 as president of Westfield State, which enrolls 5,400 students.

Dobelle says all of his travel, dinner parties, concert tickets, expensive guest-speaker series, limo rides and other expenditures were meant to build the image of the campus and benefit the university and its students.

State Rep. Donald F. Humason, R-Westfield, wants the audit released quickly so people are not left “wondering if there’s something (the university) is trying to hide.” Referring to Dobelle’s five-year tenure, Humason said, “It would be a shame to tarnish what he’s worked so hard to build.”

But what is he building? That’s one of the questions raised as details of the travel expenses leak out.

The foreign travel, in particular, seems out of place with the mission of a small state university. State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, questioned Dobelle’s expensive international trips in a Gazette interview Sunday. “Frankly, I don’t see the need to recruit students from around the world,” he said. “I found that really strange.”

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, also expressed concern about the spending based on the reports he’s read.

This is not the first time Dobelle’s spending as a college president has come under scrutiny. University of Hawaii regents fired Dobelle as president in 2004 over what they called lavish and inappropriate spending. Dobelle threatened to sue for breach of contract. His lawyers and the university reached a $1.6 million settlement.

Dobelle says there was no wrongdoing and that the action by the regents was political. Westfield State trustees say they knew about Dobelle’s background, but accepted his version of events there. Details about his ouster, which appear on the independent news outlet hawaiireporter.com, suggest trustees should have dug deeper into Dobelle’s background.

In fact, while it is Dobelle’s spending that is being examined, in our opinion there’s an apparent lack of oversight by trustees that also deserves review.

Dobelle’s trips and expenditures were all open and public. Did the trustees sanction his vision to brand Westfield as an international institution? Were the expenditures reasonable for a small state university that’s part of a 29-campus public higher education system?

The Westfield State Foundation is separate from the university and so its financial problems were not necessarily known to trustees. However, alarms should have gone off when the foundation was forced to borrow $425,000 in 2011 from the university to meet its obligations after Dobelle’s run on foundation kitty.

Whatever the outcome of the current financial review, the Westfield State situation is a wake-up call for trustees at every state college to scrutinize their institutions’ spending policies and practices.

Colleges and universities need to spend money to fundraise and be competitive, but that spending must be reasonable and appropriate for the mission of the institution, especially those supported by taxpayers.

Related

State orders Westfield State University to release audit results within 30 days

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

WESTFIELD — Gov. Deval Patrick on Friday called for the results of an audit of the spending habits of Westfield State University President Evan S. Dobelle to be made public within 30 days. Patrick’s instruction comes days after press reports that Dobelle spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from the university and its private foundation on travel and for other …

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