When looking for a higher education leader, boards of trustees typically want a visionary who can make needed changes or an executive who can mind the store. Evan Dobelle, the former president of Trinity College, seemed to have both qualities.
While at Trinity, Dobelle saw a need to integrate the ivied campus with Hartford’s down-at-the-heels Frog Hollow neighborhood. So he came up with the grand and innovative idea of establishing a public-private partnership called The Learning Corridor. Described by one former Trinity colleague as “an extraordinarily important achievement,” the project turned an old bus depot into four magnet schools and a Boys and Girls Club.
But The Learning Corridor came with a hefty $112 million price tag. And four years after Dobelle left, Trinity found itself mired in debt, the result of “a culture here of spending whatever we thought we needed to and expecting the nice folks in the business office to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” current Trinity President Jimmy Jones told The Courant.
That culture of extravagance has followed Dobelle ever since he left Trinity in 2001. Dobelle exited Frog Hollow to become one of the highest paid university presidents in the country. The new gig put him in charge of the entire University of Hawaii system — a huge promotion by any reckoning. But after only three years, his Board of Regents fired him with cause in the wake of credible allegations that he had abused his spending privilege and been untruthful. Dobelle fired back by spending nearly $300,000 on lawyers and threatening costly litigation, so the Regents negotiated a settlement that rescinded the firing and essentially paid him more than $1.5 million to go away.
Now less than 10 years later, the pattern has repeated itself. After returning from paradise, Dobelle had a brief stint at the New England Board of Higher Education, a lobbying group. Then in 2007, despite his past difficulties, he landed the presidency of Westfield State University outside of Springfield and just up the road from Hartford. Amazingly, the Westfield board wasn’t terribly concerned with Dobelle’s track record of profligacy or his tendency to retaliate fiercely against his bosses when confronted with his behavior.
Predictably, Dobelle traveled all over the world, racking up a $140,000 tab for a trip to Asia, staying in fancy hotels and billing Westfield’s charitable foundation for much of the action. A university-retained accounting firm found Dobelle had violated travel and credit card rules. In addition, the report found he had billed the university for personal trips for him and his family.
Top state officials, including Gov. Deval Patrick, said they were concerned that the reputation of the entire state higher-education system had been damaged. More than $2 million in state funding to the campus was suspended.
Dobelle’s reaction was similar to what he did when he ran into trouble in Hawaii. He signed on high-profile Hartford attorney Ross Garber to threaten legal action. He hired the pit-bull George Regan, a Boston PR man who laughably accused Westfield’s board chairman of trying to fire Dobelle so that he could turn the university into a diploma mill for aspiring state troopers.
After the trustees suspended him on Oct. 17, Dobelle filed a federal lawsuit — federal litigation being more expensive to defend against — alleging, among other things, that his civil rights had been violated. It is now widely assumed that a negotiated exit settlement is in the works. Sound familiar?
Shortly before he moved to Westfield, I interviewed Dobelle in advance of his speaking engagement at the Salisbury Forum. He gave a snoozer of a lecture, took no questions, even after saying he would, and no doubt left the building clutching his honorarium check.
During our earlier interview, Dobelle insisted he was never fired from the University of Hawaii. Later, I checked Dobelle’s Wikipedia entry and noticed there was no mention of his bitter departure from the Aloha State, which struck me as very wrong. So I inserted and sourced a couple of factual sentences. The words were repeatedly taken down, either by a supporter or by Dobelle himself. The reasoning on the discussion boards went something like this: What happened in Hawaii was unfair; therefore it should not be on his Wikipedia page. Thankfully, Wikipedia’s level-headed mediators thought otherwise.
What’s happening now is more than fair to Dobelle but perhaps not to Bay State taxpayers. Ironically, this might be one area in which there is actually more accountability in the public sector than in the private. Since Westfield and Hawaii are public universities funded by taxpayers, much of these misadventures unfolded in plain sight. At a private institution, we’d probably be in the dark and Dobelle would have gone quietly into the night.
Either way, there’s one thing you can be sure of: he’d try mightily to expunge it from his Wikipedia page. That’s a store he knows how to mind.