A Good First Step at Westfield State

The Westfield State University board of trustees voted to place embattled President Evan Dobelle on paid administrative leave last week, a decisive move that we hope will be the first step in ending a tenure that has become a serious distraction for the college and, more importantly, a burden for the state’s public higher-education system at a time when it doesn’t need one.
Recapping the recent events in what has been an ongoing saga, the board’s action came several hours after the faculty and librarians (at least those who participated) voted by a wide margin to issue a vote of no confidence in Dobelle, who has come under unrelenting fire from the media and Board of Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland for his lavish spending and misuse of university credit cards.
The board, which has also come under fire from Freeland for a lack of leadership on this matter and essentially doing too little far too late, put Dobelle on ice until at least late November, when the law firm it hired to investigate Dobelle’s spending habits is expected to issue its findings.
In doing so, the board essentially disregarded repeated threats from Dobelle’s lawyer and hired public-relations specialist that disciplining the school’s president would result in a federal lawsuit claiming, among other things, that Dobelle’s constitutional rights were violated because an investigation launched into his spending earlier this year was done illegally.
While we understand why Dobelle’s team would focus on the procedural aspects of that investigation — there are questions about whether rules, such as open-meeting law provisions, were violated — we prefer to side with Freeland and his ongoing contention that it is what’s in the report that is at the heart of this controversy.
Slicing through it all, the accounting firm that conducted the inquiry found that there were violations regarding school policies involving use of credit cards, but also, in the interpretation of Freeland and others who have seen the results, blatant irresponsibility when it comes to spending taxpayer and Westfield State Foundation funds.
The headlines and the controversy that has ensued — including allegations from Dobelle that there is essentially a statewide conspiracy against him and that Freeland is out for his job — prompted the commissioner to write the trustees recently and say “it seems to me highly questionable whether President Dobelle can or should continue to provide leadership to Westfield State University.”
We concur, but must note that Freeland has much more on his mind than the Westfield campus when he makes such statements. Indeed, Freeland is quite concerned about the impact of the Dobelle controversy on perception of the state’s public higher-education system and possible future funding. And he should be concerned.
As we’ve said many times over the years, this is a state that has historically underfunded public higher ed, consistently ranking well below the national average in this category. There are several possible reasons for this, including the widely held theory that, historically, the Legislature hasn’t made public higher education a priority in a state rich with esteemed private institutions.
Whatever the reason or reasons for this poor track record, the last thing this state needs is another one. That’s because now, perhaps more than ever, the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities are critically important to the task of making this state competitive in the high-stakes contest for what is now arguably the world’s most precious commodity: jobs.
Dobelle’s recklessness with other people’s money — not to mention his absurd allegations against anyone who questions him — present a serious threat to the public higher-education system.
And that’s why the university board’s vote last week must be just the first step in the process of ridding the state of what has become an annoying problem.

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