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Public Higher Ed: The Last Man Standing

Evan Dobelle and Richard Freeland continue to follow their drummers.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Michael Massey |

Last year, two powerful men left lasting marks on public higher education in Massachusetts, and the events that pitted them against each other are still playing out.

Evan Dobelle, who left his post as president of Westfield State University after running up hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of questionable expenditures, has caused yet more expense for WSU. The school has just approved $900,000 in bills related to the inquiry about Dobelle’s spending. And opening arguments were heard in U.S. District Court in Springfield last week in a suit Dobelle has filed against trustees of WSU and others, claiming, among other things, that he was defamed and his constitutional rights violated by the way his employment at WSU ended.

Dobelle has also filed suit in Hampden Superior Court, accusing WSU of breach of contract.

Most vocal in challenging Dobelle last fall were not the WSU trustees—some of whom tried to shelter Dobelle until it was clear that the school could no longer afford his grandiose spending and behavior—but state Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland, who asserted the right of his office to freeze $2 million in state funding for a science center at WSU until the school got to the bottom of the Dobelle fiasco. Some considered the move highhanded: for that and other reasons, Dobelle accused Freeland, now a defendant in the federal suit, of making it impossible for him to work at WSU.

But Freeland’s action was not just the reflex of a bureaucrat. A graduate of Amherst College, he was president of Northeastern University for 10 years, and for 22 years held various high-level positions at UMass Boston. For four years he was vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the City University of New York. So Freeland has earned his credentials both as a college president and as a professional with more than a quarter of a century of experience in public education.

As Dobelle’s court actions proceed, WSU seeks another president. As it does so, the rules for the search will have changed since the time the university hired Dobelle. As the result of a process that was started at the behest of the Legislature well before the brouhaha at WSU, the Department of Higher Education will now be much more involved with the selection of presidents for public colleges. It will have a voting seat on search committees, and the commissioner will weigh in on job descriptions and compensation. The Board of Higher Education will have the final say on whether a president is appointed.

The consequences of this new degree of control may be farreaching. While the events at WSU suggest that more state oversight could be beneficial in some situations, the new procedures represent a change in Massachusetts’ hitherto exceptionally decentralized public higher education system, and raise questions about whether centralization might have undesirable effects on state colleges that differ widely as to their service areas, characters and missions. The Advocate asked Greenfield Community College president Robert Pura about the possible downsides of centralization. Pura’s response was measured.

“Governance best serves our system when there’s a good balance between the opportunities for statewide perspective alongside strong local decisionmaking,” he said. “Richard Freeland as commissioner brings a great perspective to the table. ... When there’s too strong a central perspective, then colleges that are distant from that center might not be well served, and the issues that challenge a particular college—the uniqueness of the challenges—might be seen in a normative perspective. Standardization and centralization are not always the best response to unevenness in our system.”

“The entire spirit of these new guidelines is to strengthen the collaboration between local campuses and the Department of Higher Education with an eye toward honoring and preserving the unique character of each of our public colleges and universities,” Freeland told the Advocate in an e-mail.

So Dobelle’s lawyers inveigh against WSU and Freeland in court; WSU trustees plan the search for a new president; and Freeland reads all the yearly evaluations of public college presidents and talks them through with boards of trustees.

Both Dobelle and Freeland have been people of vision. Dobelle, also a longtime college administrator, wanted WSU to draw students and funds from across the world, and to engage with the community. In the end, the money he spent did nothing to boost the school’s endowment—in fact, donations declined during his tenure—and the faculty and many students were glad to see him go.

Freeland too had, and has, vision. His department has gotten enhanced funding for higher education; created programs to connect what’s taught in the public colleges with real jobs; put millions into the community colleges for a so-called “Stem Starter Academy”; and devised upbeat promotions for public higher ed. But as he continues to put his signature on these programs and institute more control over the state’s highly diverse public colleges, the longterm results remain to be seen.•

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