Can COE Alum Evan Dobelle Remake Westfield?

From The Hartford Courant
Pursuing Vision of a College Town
By Tom Condon
May 3, 2009

It's hard to get more post-industrial than Westfield, Mass. It is called the "Whip City" because of the buggy whips that were made there when horsepower was measured by the horse. That of course was a long time ago. The town has nice neighborhoods and other businesses, but the moribund downtown suggests it hasn't fully recovered from the onslaught of the newfangled automobile.

But there are handsome historic buildings in the center of town. With the right vision, the downtown could be revived and reborn. And a new guy in town has that vision.

That would be Evan S. Dobelle, who became president of Westfield State College 15 months ago. If you were in Hartford when Dobelle was developing The Learning Corridor as president of Trinity College from 1995 to 2001, it comes as no surprise that he's trying to make his school a catalyst for urban development. That's what he does, and that's what he thinks other colleges should be doing.

"Higher education is an industry. There are 270 colleges in New England that have 250,000 jobs, including 38,000 faculty, and spend $20 billion a year just in operating expenses. Why wouldn't you build on that? You can have a creative economy and bring cities back."

Under Dobelle, Westfield State's foundation privately raised $120,000 and initiated a plan that, if fully executed, will send up to 1,000 students to live downtown, and locate some of the college's programs there as well. Some of the student housing could be on upper floors in older buildings, over storefronts. In addition, downtown will become a performing arts center, with small theaters and studios.

Dobelle has brought in the highly regarded architect and planner William Rawn of Boston, designer of the lovely Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, to do the master plan and Gideon Lester of Harvard's American Repertory Theater to plan the performing arts program. Residents reviewed the draft plans at a series of workshops over the past two weeks. The plans are beginning to draw private sector interest. "The restaurant guys from Northhampton have been down," Dobelle notes.

As Dobelle sees it, the town is in too good a location not to respond to the right stimuli. It's at the foot of the Berkshires and all their arts and music, it is served by an airport, a main rail line and a highway, and is part of the Hartford-Springfield Knowledge Corridor. His school, Westfield State, is something of a hidden gem; many consider it the top regional college in the Massachusetts system. It can all come together.

"I can jump-start this," Dobelle says assertively. There, in that one sentence, is the mix of vision, audacity and confidence that makes him such a compelling character.

The lanky, well-tailored educator left Trinity to take over the troubled University of Hawaii system, where he served until 2004. He says it was "a great time but a little awkward at the end."

Well, yes. Dobelle was caught up in a huge statewide political controversy that I have neither the space nor the inclination to recount in detail. Clearly he pushed for a lot of good things and got a number of them done; he also ruffled feathers and got entwined in gubernatorial politics, something usually to be avoided. When a Republican beat the Democrat in 2002 and changed the leadership of the university's board of regents, Dobelle's days were numbered. He was fired "for cause" but went to court, reached a seven-figure settlement and had the firing rescinded.

A member of his administration at the university summed it up by saying: "We left it better than we found it." Let's leave it at that.

The tempest didn't knock Dobelle out of the game, by any stretch. In 2004 the six New England governors, three from each party, named him president of the New England Board of Higher Education, where he again pushed colleges to help their communities. In December 2007, Dobelle took the job in Westfield.

"I thought it would be fun to make a difference for kids whose parents I grew up with," he says.

It's easy to think of Dobelle as a blueblood; he was chief of protocol in the Carter White House as well as president of Trinity. That misses another side of him. Dobelle grew up in nearby Pittsfield, and served as its Republican mayor when he was 28. He also served as president of two urban two-year colleges, Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Mass., and City College of San Francisco.

So he knows the kids he's got, and likes them. "These are really smart kids, who can do amazing things." With the economy deep in the tanklet, Westfield State is getting kids who were accepted at such schools as Holy Cross and Fairfield. Never mind acceptances, deposits are up 29 percent over last year. Night classes are filling up.

I took my daughter to look at Westfield a few years ago. Architecturally, the campus had a 1950s institutional feel, sort of like Central Connecticut State University before the makeover. Dobelle has put some zip into it with new electronic signs, landscaping and other such stuff. The guy gets things done.

Dobelle stays in touch with Hartford, not least via the fantasy baseball league run by former Hartford police captain Jim Donnelly. Mention of the long-undefeated Trinity squash team, whose status he greatly enhanced, brings a smile to Dobelle's oval visage.

Dobelle is proud that three of his top people at Trinity, Jim Mullen, Sharon Herzberger and Ron Thomas, are college presidents at Allegheny College, Whittier College and University of Puget Sound, respectively. "Being a president is like being a coach, it's about spotting talent," he says. The staffer about whom he is clearly distressed is Eddie Perez, who supervised the Learning Corridor project. Dobelle said Perez looked him in the eye and told him he did nothing wrong. That will have to do for now.

Dobelle looks much the same as he did when he left Trinity, and remains a font of ideas and opinions. When kids who don't know what to study ask for advice, he tells then "computer technology and Spanish." You may watch the movie "Rudy" to see a kid fulfill his dream. Dobelle sees a role model for how to get into the college of one's choice (be relentless!). He has sent the video of the remarkable singer Susan Boyle to his faculty, lest they judge students too soon.

Perhaps Dobelle flew too close to the sun in Hawaii, but he's back in New England, further from the fiery orb, working with the kinds of kids for whom he really can make a difference. At 63, this could be his last time at bat, and I suspect it will be a good one. Keep an eye on Westfield; it could become the Whip-Smart City.