Former UH president won't step down amid critical reports about spending

Former UH president won't step down amid critical reports about spending
Evan Dobelle
Evan Dobelle

BOSTON, MA (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nine years after Evan Dobelle left the University of Hawaii when the UH regents tried to fire him for overspending, he's under renewed criticism for similar spending practices at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where he is currently the school's president.

Dobelle said Friday he has no plans to step down as president, in spite of criticism over lavish spending and his use of school credit cards for personal expenses, violating school policy. Dobelle has been under fire for charging more than $200,000 to the Westfield College Foundation and using that money for luxury hotel stays, fancy dinners, limo rides and other questionable expenses.

Friday, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education questioned university trustees about their knowledge of the questionable spending detailed in an accountant's report and a letter from the state inspector general.

Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland called the pattern of expenses "deeply distressing." the Associated Press reported.

In a letter Thursday, the Massachusetts inspector general said Dobelle spent money intended for programs and scholarships "indiscriminately." The IG urged Westfield state university's trustees to more closely scrutinize Dobelle's claims that his expenses have brought the school a "return on investment" worth millions.

The state's financial watchdog said partly because of Dobelle's high spending, the Westfield State College Foundation, that is supposed to raise money for the school, ran a deficit in 2010, so the university had to transfer $400,000 to the foundation.

An investigation by The Boston Globe raised questions about a May fundraising trip Dobelle took to San Francisco in which he claimed he hobnobbed with movers and shakers and sought $500,000 in grants from well known foundations.

The newspaper reported Friday that seven of the 11 foundations Dobelle claimed to have visited said they received no fundraising pitch from Dobelle or anyone else from his university.

Dobelle has maintained that all of his travel and expenses are "strategically planned" and he said he's proud of his accomplishments as president of the school in western Massachusetts.

A report released in late August by an accountant hired by the university's trustees found Dobelle mixed personal and business spending while making 76-out-of-state trips in the 68 months he's headed the university.

Dobelle said he's paid the foundation back about $35,000 in personal expenses. But some repayments were delayed three years, and he made some of them only after the accountant began reviewing his spending.

He also said every dime he's spent has been for the good of the university.

"We have accomplished with the board's approval, game changing success," Dobelle said at a trustees' meeting Aug. 31.

Dobelle said those successes include making Westfield State Massachusetts' best valued university and raising its image around the world.

"Our investments will pay huge to the citizens of the Commonwealth (Massachusetts) on our educated workforce in the future--and I think each and every one of us deserves to be proud of what we've accomplished together," Dobelle said in late August.

The Boston Globe said Dobelle has made several debatable claims during the past few weeks as he fights to keep his $240,920-a-year job:

  • He said scholarships given by the Westfield State College Foundation remained at $250,000 a year, despite his costly initiatives that drained the foundation's treasury.  But The Boston Globe reported that internal documents show the foundation never was that generous and scholarship totals have dropped significantly since 2008.
  • Dobelle insists he flew coach on a 2008 trip to Asia that cost $148,000 for the delegation.  But a student who traveled with him told the Globe they both flew in business class to Asia, which typically costs four or more times as much as coach.
  • Dobelle said he has made Westfield State "number one across the board" for SAT scores and grade point averages among incoming freshmen.  But first-year students at University of Massachusetts branches in Amherst, Boston and Lowell, among other public schools, have higher SAT scores and grade point averages.

In 2004, Dobelle was fired as president of the University of Hawaii because of concerns about his high spending on travel as well as $90,000 in university funds he spent on polls for politicians and $1 million he spent on renovations to the president's mansion on College Hill.

The Board of Regents later backtracked and rescinded his dismissal after Dobelle threatened to sue. UH paid him $1.05 million cash and he resigned from the job as part of a settlement with the university.

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