Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Do the Bell: The remarkable career of Evan Dobelle

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, March 24, 2014 by John H. Spencer

Evan Dobelle during his presidency at the University of Hawaii
In my ninth-grade classes I used to give lollypops for various things: first A-minus, most footnotes. One student actually got one for misspelling his own name, but also I gave one, each time a paper was assigned, for best title (even though some students worked harder on the title rather than the content of the essay).

Megan Cort was the best I ever had and I told her she would one day make a fortune in advertising (she is now 23; I need to find out what she is doing). She was so good I had to ban her for a while. I am sure she will groan at the title I came up with for tonight — although she might smile.

Who has a guess what it means?

I am a political junkie and what makes people tick, especially in the use of power — from all the King's Men with its view that man is conceived in sin; to the marvelous biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro, three volumes complete and the fourth to come; to Citizen Kane and Rosebud.

So, I pick a person not as powerful, not as complicated, but still remarkable and with local connections — Evan Dobelle. ("Do the Bell" — sorry, Megan.)

Did he have his Rosebud? Did he have a fatal flaw? Or has his journey through life been overlooked by the fact that he, at times, lived that journey high on the hog and loved credit cards other than his own? As I tell his tale, you judge.

Where do you go nowadays for research? There are no books on Dobelle. I did not organize in time to do interviews, but started with an article cut out from The Berkshire Eagle of November 24, 2013. Written by Jim Therrien, it was titled "Ambitious from the beginning." It caught my interest, and a lightbulb went off that it would be a good subject for a Monday Evening Club paper.

"Local boy" — known by some members of the Club. (Wish I could have talked to Roger Linscott.) Carter administration, college president five times, gets in trouble for lavish spending but lands on his feet each time, a survivor, a big thinker, etc. etc.

So, I turned to a source not available even 10-15 years ago, Facebook. Evan Dobelle as featured on his Facebook page:

  • He has 5,000 friends. His wife Kit has 278.
  • Sports:  L.A. Dodgers, U.S. Olympic Team, Major League Baseball
  • Music: Frank Sinatra, San Francisco Symphony, Tchaikofski, Aaron Neville, Torn Abdow
  • Movies: Shawshank Redemption, Casablanca, The King's Speech, Le Concert, Life is Beautiful
  • Television: Rome, ESPN News, Johnny Carson, 60 Minutes, BBC, Bill Green's Maine
  • Books: Sister Carrie, The Fountainhead, The Republic, John D. MacDonald, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • Apps: Poker
  • Quotes:
    • "You are now entering a stress-free zone."
    • "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." — Maya Angelou
    • "Every student needs someone who says, simply, 'You mean something. You count.'" — Tony Kushner
    • "It does not matter if the glass is half empty or half full, be grateful that you have a glass and there is something in it."
    • "If we learn nothing else from the tragedy, we learn life is short and there is no time for hate." — Wife of a Flight 93 (9/11) pilot
Just the facts, ma'am:

  • Born April 22, 1945 in Washington, DC. His father was Martin Dobelle, orthopedic surgeon, who had a job at NASA in Florida, later in Pittsfield.
  • 1962: Graduated Cocoa Beach Senior High School, Florida. Attended Citadel Military College and American University.
  • 1966 - March 1977; Young Republican; Massachusetts Gov. John A. Volpe's statehouse staff
  • 1969: Register of Wills, New Castle County, Delaware
  • 1970: Staff member for the Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest
  • 1971: Boston office of Sen. Edward Brooke (Republican, Massachusetts)
  • 1971: Assistant Superintendent in the Temple City, California school system
  • 1971: Berkshire Community College Advisory Board
  • 1973: Republican primary for the state Senate seat from Berkshire County — loses to Jack Fitzpatrick 2795 to 2712. (What if he had won?)
  • 1973: At the age of 28, wins the primary for Pittsfield mayor, 5647 to 2776; and the November election 12,242 to 7,753 (both races against Albert Bogdan)
  • 1975: Served on the steering committee to direct Gerald Ford's election campaign in Massachusetts
  • Jan. 1976: Sworn in for a second term as Mayor of Pittsfield.
  • Jan. 1976: Leaves the Republican party to campaign for Jimmy Carter. Met Carter for the first time at the Pittsfield airport.
  • Oct. 1976: Becomes head of the Massachusetts Division of Natural Resources.
  • March 1977: Appointed United States Chief of Protocol, with the rank of ambassador, in the Carter administration
  • 1978: Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee
  • 1980: National Chairman of the Carter-Mondale Presidential Committee. (As such, Dobelle played a role in unseating Tim Kraft as campaign manager by alleging to have witnessed Kraft using cocaine, a charge of which Kraft was later cleared.)
  • 1981-86: A quiet time; Dobelle almost disappears. This could have been the end of the story. Amazingly, he is only 35. He was an investment banker, part-time, and obtained a second Master's Degree at Harvard, as well as a BA and a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts. (He had obtained an MA in 1970 but had no BA.)
Then, the third phase, a remarkable run as president of higher educational institutions:
  • 1987-1990: President of Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Mass. The library there is named for him.
  • 1990-1995: President and Chancellor of City College of San Francisco
  • 1995-2001: President of Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.
  • 2001-2004: President of the University of Hawaii
  • 2004-2007: President of the New England Board of Higher Education
  • 2007-2013: President of Westfield State University, Westfield, Mass.
In 1987, he became the president of Middlesex Community College in Lowell. He was there three years. There is not much information on this, but it is the job that launches him on his higher education career and contains the seeds of what is to become his mantra — breaking down town/gown barriers, encouraging kids to do community service, and seeing (except for Trinity) his students as being on the fringe.

The next move continues this, but on a larger scale. President and Chancellor of City College of San Francisco — same mantra. After five years, he leaves to take a presidency that, at first look, seems to deviate from the norm: president of a small, prestigious liberal arts school, Trinity College.

But it is not, for Trinity is located in Hartford, the college is surrounded by failing neighborhoods, applications to the school are declining, students and parents are worried about safety. Dobelle comes in as a former mayor, an urban school president, and says: "This is what Trinity must do and I am the man to do it." He was described as "a force of nature."

And he did it. He took a nine-acre plot next to the school and tore down a gas station and city bus garage, creating a "learning corridor" walk, with schools, police substation, Boys & Girls Club, and 150 new housing units.

At Westfield he had dorms built, started a speakers series, changed the name from "college" to "university." He thinks big, but he also spends big. 

The University of Hawaii is the presidency he will most be remembered for. From July 2, 2001 to June 30, 2004, at a salary of $442,000, he led the 10-campus, 45,000-student system. It was a troubled system, but Dobelle said he saw "a system that simply needs to understand and comprehend how good it is."

He went in as a force of nature, proposing a new football stadium, calling for a 4-year school in film the television, $1.5 million for Hawaiian programs, and a $200 million construction program.

But, money issues surfaced. $1 million to renovate his residence, use of foundation money, publicly backing the losing candidate for governor. He was fired by the Regents. But he came up roses. In a settlement, firing for cause was dropped, he remained as a researcher at $125,000 per year for two years. The total settlement package was $3.4 million, including $1.05 million in cash, attorneys fees of $290,000 paid by the Regents, and a $2 million whole life insurance policy, with the family required to pay $400,000 to the university on Dobelle's death. He lands on his feet both financially and career-wise, and becomes president of the New England Board of Higher Education.

After that, Westfield. Accused of lavish and improper spending, on November 7, 2013 Evan Dobelle resigns from the Westfield State University presidency. Two state agencies were poring over records of spending at 5-star hotels, limousines, high-priced restaurants, $150,000 to take a Westfield State delegation to Asia, $10,000 for tickets to Tanglewood, etc.

It started in the fall of 2008, when the school's private foundation gave him a credit card to pay what were meant to be "generally small amounts for fund-raising expenses." In 2010, they closed the account after he had run up more than $200,000 in charges.

But he could not stop. He started racking up charges on his executive assistant's credit card. This is what eventually did him in and triggered a review of this spending habits and a freeze on college funds. The use of his executive assistant's card can be called reckless and a rash side of his behavior. Yet, he justified it in the following way: "I made Westfield State the hottest college in New England.... I'm a change agent, you know I'm going to take a hit.... Accidentally used the wrong card for personal expenses.... 76 out-of-state trips were aimed at improving the lives of Westfield students... I do things for kids.... I channel Horace Mann." 

Yes, he had to resign. He did not get severance. He was not appointed President Emeritus. But he still gets a state pension of $90,000. He believes he did nothing ethically wrong.

Did I discover Evan Dobelle's Rosebud? Do I understand who he is? Of course not. I am not a Robert Caro or Doris Kearns Goodwin. On the other hand, he is not Lyndon Johnson or Abraham Lincoln.

But I did come away with a respect for what he did, and I think some understanding of who he was. He could easily have become a wolf of Wall Street, as he worked there in the 1980s when greed reigned. He could have secured a cushy political job. He might even have become a successful politician, but he chose the educational field.

Why? Did he want to be a John Glenn and go to the moon by changing education? Was his going back to get his B.A. at age 37 and being in class with 20- and 21-year-olds not just a gesture but a real belief in earning your way and the importance of education? Is his praise the University of Massachusetts a belief in public education? Was his presidency of Westfield not only ego and a liking of the spotlight but a belief in the education of Westfield students?

We are both simple and complex creatures. Why did this successful person mis-use credit cards a second time at a public institution? Why not? It was for the the great good. Plus, he came out of Hawaii financed for life. Also, at Westfield he did it for years before the boom was lowered.

I think the answer is simple. One gets used a nice life style, especially if someone else is paying for it. My recent first-class trip to California made me realize how seductive it is. 

The sad thing is that this is what many people remember about Dobelle. When you Google him, article after article is about the conflict at Hawaii and the resignation at Westfield. One has to dig a bit to find his accomplishments. In fact one of the best articles I found was through a link on his wife's Google site. 

Mayor of Pittsfield at age 28, Carter administration official, but what I respect most was his attempts to change education, which, being it in on a small scale myself, his not easy to do. I think his experience in Pittsfield and at Middlesex Community College made him want to break down the town/gown wall. He is not a scholar, he is a doer. He believed with a passion in students doing community service.

As was stated in an article by Faye Wolfe entitled "The Man to do it" (University of Massachusetts Magazine (Winter, 1998): "It is not complicated — you believe him... his power of concentration and the strength of his personality even when he is talking about urban renewal and transforming the decaying neighborhoods around Trinity College."

Dobelle said this about higher education: "Higher education is over-managed. Leadership is accepting accountability, having vision, and being relentless.... Every college wants to be something else. Amherst wants to be Williams, Williams wants to be Duke, Duke wants to be Stanford, Stanford wants to be Yale, Yale wants to be Harvard, Harvard wants to be Oxford, Oxford wants to be Cambridge. Let Trinity be Trinity. Be happy with who you are."

His wife said, "Pittsfield, Massachusetts is our home. I think it is very important to have a home."

So Evan Dobelle has returned to his home. At age 68, at any age, can he retire and stay out of the limelight? I doubt it. 

I would love to have lunch with him and ask him questions. I would even pay for it on my credit card.

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