The leadership controversy at Westfield State University has deepened with the filing of a federal court lawsuit. Embattled President Evan Dobelle charges trustees and the state’s top higher education official have defamed him.
A 40-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield late Thursday alleges Dobelle’s reputation is being destroyed and his employment contract and due process rights are being violated by a “guerrilla war” for control of the school being waged by the chairman of the Westfield State University Board of Trustees and the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.
The suit was filed just one week after trustees at the conclusion of a marathon 10-hour meeting put Dobelle on paid leave and hired a Boston law firm to investigate several years worth of travel and entertainment expenses Dobelle charged to the university and its fundraising arm, the Westfield State Foundation. Dobelle’s lawyer Ross Garber said at the time a lawsuit was the likely result of the board’s decision.
Dobelle and the trustees tried to work out a deal that would have had Dobelle step down as president, take a one year paid sabbatical and return next year as a tenured professor, according to a report in Friday’s Boston Globe.
Mark Rogers, CEO of BoardProspects, an expert in board governance does not believe a deal can be worked out now that Dobelle has sued.
Dobelle exited the presidency of the University of Hawaii in 2004 after his record of free-spending on travel and entertainment was questioned there. He reportedly left with a seven-figure settlement after claiming he was the target of a political vendetta.
Rogers says Westfield State Trustees should have kept Dobelle on a tighter rein after he was hired in 2007.
Dobelle’s travel expenses at Westfield State only came to light in late August after auditors hired at the direction of board of trustees chairman John Flynn filed a report. In the lawsuit, and previously through a publicist, Dobelle has accused Flynn of initiating the investigation into the president’s spending in a bid to take control of the school to purse his own agenda. Flynn has denied this.
Likewise, Dobelle’s legal and public relations team has accused Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland of ulterior motives. Freeland,alarmed by what he said appeared to be indiscriminate spending by Dobelle, moved to freeze certain state funds including $2 million earmarked for a new science building at Westfield State.
Earlier this week Freeland was asked about the prospect of being named a defendant in a lawsuit brought by Dobelle.
Dobelle’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and legal fees. In addition to Flynn and Freeland the suits names Westfield State University Trustees Kevin Queenin and Elizabeth Scheibel, the accounting firm O’Connor and Drew, and James Cox the attorney for the board of trustees.