Higher Education's Risky Search for the Silver Bullet

A Massachusetts college's traumatic leadership crisis has lessons for governance in the wider world of public universities.
by | October 21, 2013

Years of budget cuts have left many of the nation's public colleges and universities looking for a silver bullet. But the sad story of one of Massachusetts' higher-education institutions shows that searching too hard for that shiny projectile can cloud judgments and lead to bad decisions.

Westfield State University serves about 5,600 students. When the western Massachusetts school was searching for a new president in 2007, one candidate stood out. Evan Dobelle has been a White House chief of protocol; mayor of the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield; head of the New England Board of Higher Education, which promotes educational opportunities for the region's residents; and president of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and the University of Hawaii. Westfield State's search consultant told a member of the hiring committee that Dobelle was "almost out of our league."

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But soon after Dobelle took over, the bills started to pile up. A celebrity speaker series cost $500,000. The tab for a 10-person tour of the Far East designed to boost Westfield State's stature was $145,000. (Compare that to the $92,000 it cost for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to take a 24-person delegation on a trade mission to Great Britain and Israel in 2011.)

By 2010, Dobelle's charges on a Westfield State Foundation credit card had reached $200,000, $20,000 of which were found to be for personal expenses. When the foundation closed his credit card that year, Dobelle started to use the card of his executive assistant, who is now an associate vice president at the university.

The Westfield State Foundation figures into the Dobelle story in other ways. The foundation is supposed to raise money to support the university. But the roles were reversed when Dobelle approved a $425,000 loan from the university in 2010 to bail out the foundation.

Dobelle claims all the money was spent strategically to boost the university. Yet Westfield State remains last in fundraising among the nine Massachusetts state colleges (which remain separate from the University of Massachusetts system). That's exactly where it was when Dobelle took over.

Massachusetts' attorney general and inspector general have launched investigations. The chair of the Board of Higher Education has frozen the school's state funding. And last week Dobelle was placed on paid administrative leave after a vote of no confidence from the university's faculty and librarians.

What makes Westfield State's saga even sadder is that it was so preventable. In 2004, the University of Hawaii's Board of Regents fired Dobelle for eerily similar behavior. After he threatened to sue, the university rescinded his firing and paid him $1.4 million plus legal fees to terminate his 10-year contract. Former Massachusetts Board of Regents chair Kitty Lagareta said Dobelle's actions at Westfield State were "like deja vu all over again," noting that his bills were from the same places, accompanied by the same stories.

Former Westfield State board chair Thomas Foley said he only saw "a couple of newspaper articles" about Dobelle's high-profile flameout in Hawaii. But Hawaii Senate President Donna Mercado Kim seemed astonished when she heard about Dobelle getting the Westfield State job. "I can't believe you hired him," she said. "With the Internet and computers, there's really no excuse."

Nevertheless, Westfield State's board continued to give Dobelle raises -- his current annual salary is $240,920 -- and glowing reviews until late last year. Mark Rogers, the chief executive of BoardProspects.com, which consults with corporate and nonprofit boards, called the Dobelle affair "an utter failure in corporate governance."

The fact that the Westfield State Foundation is separate from the university and not subject to the university board's jurisdiction enabled Dobelle's behavior. Public higher-education presidents should not have more access to such entities than do the boards to which they report.

But the ultimate blame, as Mark Rogers suggests, rests with Westfield State's board. Its desire to find a shortcut that would lift the university above the competition left the board members unable to see what was clearly unfolding before of them, not to mention what had come before. Wearing blinders in a fruitless search for silver bullets will only exacerbate the challenges so many public colleges and universities are currently facing.

This column has been updated to correct its description of the function of the New England Board of Higher Education.

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