|Evan Dobelle, president at five colleges or universities, has a record of extravagant spending.|
Photo credit: Honolulu Star Bulletin
Westfield is Dobelle's fifth college presidency. Inside Higher Education reported that Dobelle was fired "for cause" at the University of Hawaii amid questions about alleged financial improprieties, although the Hawaii board quickly reversed its decision and reached a settlement with Dobelle that led to his departure.
Apparently, the allegations at both Hawaii and Westfield are similar--involving charges of extravagant and inappropriate spending. Given the negative publicity around Dobelle's presidency at the University of Hawaii, how did Dobelle manage to get two more college president's positions?
Maybe executive search firms have something to do with Dobelle's ability to get a succession of good gigs as a college president. Westfield used EFL Associates, an executive search firm, in its presidential search process that ended in the hiring of Dobelle.
Let me ask some pertinent questions. Given what was publicly known about Dobelle from his time at the University of Hawaii, how did he wind up being the top choice at Westfield? Did EFL Associates do a "due diligence" background check on Dobelle? If so, did it report on Dobelle's time at Hawaii?
Second, was the Westfield State University search one of those typical secret searches that executive search firms orchestrate for universities in which the candidates for an executive position are allowed to keep their applications secret?
I don't know the answers to these questions. But if Westfield had publicly announced the names of the applicants for the president's position prior to selecting Dobelle, then anyone interested in the quality of Westfield's next chief executive could have done a Google search and found out what everyone now knows about Dobelle's time in Hawaii.
So let me make a modest suggestion for legislation that would let the sun shine on secret search processes that too many American universities employ when hiring their senior executive officers. How about a federal law that requires every college or university that participates in the federal student loan program to comply with a Federal open records law that will require them to publicly release the names of all applicants for any higher education executive position and to do so at least 21 days before the final hiring decision is made. . Any college or university that refuses to comply with this open record requirement would be kicked out of the Federal student loan program.
The Westfield scandal comes on the heels of a scandal at Louisiana State University in which LSU refuses to release the names of the people who applied for the LSU's president's position. LSU has been engaged in litigation with The Baton Rouge Advocate since last spring after it refused to comply with the newspaper's open records request. Apparently, LSU is willing to spend thousands of dollars in attorney fees to keep its presidential search process secret. LSU selected its president, F. King Alexander, through a secret search process orchestrated by William Funk & Associates, an executive search firm located in Dallas.
It is time to clip the wings of executive search firms and force all public universities to hire their presidents and senior executives through a process that is open to public inspection. Let's face it. The record of America's university leaders is not that good. Too many college and university presidents make obscene salaries and spend extravagantly on travel and entertainment. Meanwhile the cost of attending college creeps ever upward.
A secret process of hiring college presidents is not in the public interest. Openness when hiring college presidents would serve the public much better.
Associated Press. State says Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle violated policy. The (Massachusetts) Republican, September 20, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2013/09/state_says_mass_college_presid.html
Bruce Dunford. Spending habits, poor relations soured Dobelle's tenure at UH. Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 20, 2004. Accessible at: http://archives.starbulletin.com/2004/06/20/news/story3.html
Ry Rivard. In fifth presidency, Evan Dobelle faces many allegations that ended his fourth. Inside Higher Education, September 24, 2013.