Wednesday, October 30, 2013

newspaper column, Evan S. Dobelle

What follows is one of several rejected columns I submitted to my local paper on a topic that probably interests no one but me. I am using this blog as a file box.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013
(Published in print: Wednesday, October 30, 2013)
It is hard not to posit that this is true because Dobelle seems to have had practice where the university trustees have not.

It is hard not to imagine that, yes, Dobelle will be fired in the end, but he will leave town with a fistful of dollars that might otherwise have been spent on the needs of the university. And if any of this is true, it is hard not to wonder if those trustees were asleep at the wheel when they hired Dobelle in the first place.

Evan Dobelle was warmly welcomed at WSU in 2007. There was no mention at the time that Dobelle had been fired by the University of Hawaii in 2004. Trustees in Hawaii at first wanted to fire Dobelle “for cause,” a phrase that would have excused the university from paying him the $2.26 million in severance written into his contract. Dobelle hired a lawyer and, by the time the dust settled, he left town with $1.83 million and a promise not to sue the university, among other stipulations.

As is usual in kerfuffles like the one at the University of Hawaii, no one ever got around to detailing what actual “cause” for firing there might have been in Dobelle’s case. Lawyers made sure of that. But it seems fair to guess that the trustees were not picking a fight with Dobelle because of the way he parted his hair. They were, for one reason or another, “concerned” (the bureaucratic word), or “ticked off” (the street translation).

Dobelle’s current difficulties center on his domestic and overseas spending with university and Westfield State Foundation credit cards.

I have no doubt that Dobelle’s career may include some well-deserved kudos — that his career is, as his current lawyer Ross Garber alleges in a 40-page federal lawsuit filed in Springfield, “long celebrated.” But in the same way a police or journalistic entity might consider the background of a suspect or politician, Dobelle’s adventures at the University of Hawaii strike me as relevant and perhaps revealing.

According to the Honolulu Star Bulletin, “Dobelle’s contract defined ‘cause’ as either conviction for a felony offense; a determination by doctors that he is mentally unstable or otherwise unable to perform the duties of his office; or conduct that constitutes ‘moral turpitude,’ bringing public disrespect or ridicule upon the university.” Whatever the foundations of the 2004 dustup — whether spending habits or something else — Dobelle came out a winner in Hawaii and three years later landed a job as president at a smaller institution that is testing his legal expertise of the past.

My money is on Dobelle: He knows the game and is good at playing it.

But the trustees who I imagine will write the eventual check deserve questioning. Finding out the substance of the issues at the University of Hawaii is hardly rocket science ... pick up the phone, ask around. Academics gossip as well as any Hollywood star.

Did the issue there have anything to do with spending habits? In the course of vetting Dobelle, did the WSU trustees get to the substance of the matter and find out what particular flaw or flaws occasioned the flap? If they didn’t, why not?

And if they did, did they add language to Dobelle’s WSU contract that might short-circuit the activities of the past and forestall them in the future ... as for example now?

Were any red flags raised about this potential employee? And even if the trustees win the case, how much will be spent on lawyer’s fees? Of course, there may already be contractual language that will allow WSU trustees to avoid writing a check to Evan S. Dobelle.

Others may be more sanguine, but I, for one, am not holding my breath.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton and is a regular contributor to the Gazette.

1 comment:

  1. Someone should check Dobelle's reign as head of Trinity U. in Hartford, where the faculty were pretty thoroughly upset with the guy. Worth contacting faculty and former faculty there. Good luck.