Embattled Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle has been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation into his lavish spending on travel and entertainment. The western Massachusetts school’s board of trustees took the action during the course of a marathon meeting that started Wednesday afternoon and ended past midnight Thursday.
The Westfield State University Board of Trustees voted unanimously to place Dobelle on administrative leave. The board also voted to hire the Boston law firm Fish and Richardson to conduct an investigation into issues surrounding Dobelle’s spending on domestic and international business trips that included stays at fancy hotels and expensive meals in restaurants. The results of the investigation are due November 25th.
The chairman of the trustees John Flynn announced the actions at the conclusion of a meeting that lasted more than ten hours.
The trustees meeting took place in executive session under provisions in the state’s Open Meetings Law that allows for meetings to be closed to the public to discuss the reputation, character, and possible discipline of an employee. Dobelle and his attorney were present for most of the meeting, according to a spokesman for Dobelle.
Dobelle was unavailable for comment after the meeting ended, but his spokesman lashed out at the board accusing trustees of defaming Dobelle. Ross Garber, Dobelle’s attorney, says Dobelle is considering legal action.
Pressure had been mounting on the board of trustees in the last few weeks to take some action. An auditor’s report to the trustees in August said school policies were violated on trips Dobelle and other staff members took and charged either to the school or its fundraising arm the Westfield State University Foundation. The state inspector general last month said it appeared Dobelle was spending public funds “indiscriminately”
When Dobelle failed to respond by a deadline earlier this month set by State Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland for an explanation about his spending the commissioner recommended freezing certain funding to the school.
Dobelle, speaking primarily through a public relations firm he hired, has defended his spending and accused trustee chairman Flynn and Commissioner Freeland of trying to oust him to pursue their own agendas.
On Wednesday the faculty at Westfield State University weighed in on the controversy for the first time with a no confidence vote. According to the union that represents professors and librarians, two-thirds of the 215 people who voted agreed with a statement that they had no confidence Dobelle can continue to effectively serve as president.
Education professor Robin DiAngelo said the trustees should terminate Dobelle’s employment.
Laurie Simpson, director of the academic advising center and an adjunct professor, says she has full confidence in Dobelle.
Dobelle’s spokesman dismissed the no-confidence vote saying it was a response to sensational headlines and threats from Commissioner Freeland to cut off funding.
About 40 students packed the board room and spilled out into a hallway as the trustees meeting began. Most appeared to oppose Dobelle continuing as president. Westfield State Senior Victor Martinez Diaz held a sign that read “Don’t Reward Greed”.
Martinez-Diaz said he had borrowed about $34,000 for his Westfield State University education.