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October 16, 2013

Since August, Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle has been under fire for expenditures he said he made while trying to boost the school’s financial support and brand.

Dobelle is the latest in an increasing number of college presidents to face scrutiny during this age of diminishing resources. 

Public college and university presidents are facing a host of new challenges: dwindling dollars from state and federal governments and new competition from online alternatives, to name just two. 

And these increasing pressures require greater accountability, according to former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. 

“These are competitive times in higher education in a way that we haven’t seen in years, but these are competitive times in our society in general,” he said. 

Trachtenberg is the author of Presidencies Derailed, which covers 50 college leaders nationwide who left or were pushed out before the end of their contracts – all since 2009. It appears Dobelle may be just a really bad bookkeeper, said Trachtenberg, who received an honorary degree from Westfield State last year.  

“If he’s done what has been alleged, it ought to be repaired, it ought to be fixed and he ought to reprimanded,” he said. 

In some cases, reprimands may even lead to resignation. For example, Michael Hogan stepped down from his post as president of the University of Connecticut in 2010 after he was criticized for renovating his office at great expense. Ben Ladner at American University in Washington, D.C. resigned after coming under fire for his high salary and frequent trips to visit partner universities. Ladner got a $950,000 severance payment.

Then, there’s the inimitable Gordon Gee, who has held more university presidencies than any other American.

“No one has dealt with more turbulence,” Gee told reporters shortly after he resigned. “Of course, no one has been a university president as long as I have been.”

During Gee’s tenure, he transformed Ohio’s land-grant institution, but a lapse in judgment and his loose lips in joking about Catholics undermined his presidency.

“First of all, they’re not very good partners,” he told trustees. “The Fathers are Holy on Sunday and they’re holy Hell during the rest of the week!”

So why has there been so much turnover at the top of the Ivory Tower? Part of the problem is the increasing number of stakeholders making demands on universities in an era of hard economic times, according to former GWU president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. 

“Obviously people are more thin-skinned, they’re more irritated and so they tend to be more judgmental,” Trachtenberg said.

The controversy at Westfield State is grabbing the attention of administrators across the country. At Suffolk University, the board has discontinued the use of university credit cards. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy is expecting greater public scrutiny.

“All of us take note of what’s happening in Westfield, and we’re making sure our own expenses are as clean and squeaky clean as possible,” Subbaswamy said. “I think we owe it to the public, especially because of the escalating cost of tuition and fees.”

For now, Westfield State president Dobelle is hitting the local media circuit to defend his reputation. In an interview with Greater Boston on October 7, Dobelle portrayed himself as a victim of a political conspiracy.

“This is a situation that has spiraled out of control in many ways. My interest in the future is to continue to do what I’ve always done in public life. I always tell the truth. I’m always transparent and I’m always prepared to answer questions. Beyond that, I look to stay at Westfield State.”

We’ll likely know whether that happens Wednesday when trustees meet to decide Dobelle’s fate. 

There’s one university president who proves the ability to endure, despite controversy: former Boston University president John Silber.

Long the nation’s highest paid university president, Silber survived criticism in the 1980s while making off-the-cuff statements like this one to CBS’s 60 Minutes.

“A university is certainly not a democracy if it is any good. The more democratic it becomes, the lousier it becomes.”

Whether Silber deserved every penny of his $800,000 salary in higher education’s democracy is still up for debate on the BU campus, but it certainly wasn’t well received by the college’s faculty who rallied against him.

Silber deflected threats to his position for more than 25 years. He took a leave of office to run for governor of Massachusetts, lost, and then returned as BU chancellor for seven years.

Whatever the outcome for Dobelle, one thing is clear: these are extraordinarily demanding times for leaders in higher education, some of whom are expected to make bricks without straw.

Former Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville talked about the challenges facing college presidents on Greater Boston:

college president, confronting cost, westfield state, evan dobelle

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