In wake of Dobelle debacle, Westfield State interim president adds spending safeguards, increases transparency

Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Six months after taking over as interim president of Westfield State University in November, Elizabeth H. Preston has instituted changes in financial practices to bring accountability and oversight to campus along with greater transparency to restore trust in this 175-year-old public institution.

“People are getting a great deal more information, and it’s very intentional,” Preston, a Westhampton resident, said in an interview with the Gazette this month. “I think a lot goes wrong when people don’t have good access to communication.”

Preston took over at a school that was reeling from a spending scandal in the president’s office and mired in lawsuits and state investigations. Among her first acts were to revamp the institution’s financial management team, creating two new positions that focus on internal auditing and risk management.

State and federal lawsuits filed last year by former Westfield State president Evan S. Dobelle are pending, as are the results of investigations by the state inspector general and attorney general into Dobelle’s past spending practices.

Meantime, Preston says, the Westfield State University campus has “moved on.”

She shepherded an online information blitz that provides students, faculty and others with access to every university policy, including credit card use, travel and whistleblower guidelines, all of which came into play when Dobelle resigned last October amid controversy over his spending habits and extensive domestic and foreign travel with university credit cards and money from the Westfield State Foundation. The foundation raises funds and manages charitable gifts for the university.

Westfield State University has thus far spent about $1.26 million from its reserve funds to deal with the legal complaints Dobelle filed against the university, its trustees and the state’s higher education commissioner. Preston said school officials do not expect those costs to exceed $1.5 million, nor do they anticipate resolving the lawsuits through mediation.

University officials say the legal costs have not resulted in cuts to educational programs and have not been passed on to students. Westfield State enrolls about 4,900 undergraduates. Some 94 percent of its students are from Massachusetts and 90 percent receive financial aid, according to figures provided by the university.

In addition, Preston launched a new website called “Moving Forward,” which provides updated information on the status of the state investigations and related legal actions, as well as answers to frequently asked questions about the university’s legal costs, how it pays them, impacts on enrollment and fundraising, and updates on the presidential search. She also established a Twitter feed that has gained a number of student followers.

“It speaks to the whole campus culture,” said Molly Watson, a university spokeswoman, of the message of inclusiveness and accountability Preston has tried to instill since taking over as president.

Buzz Hoagland, chairman of the university’s biology department and president of the faculty and librarians’ union, said many faculty members have been pleased with changes launched by Preston, saying budget preparation is more inclusive than ever.

“The whole budgeting process has been very refreshing because we’re now shining flashlights in corners and seeing where money is spent,” Hoagland said. “This is all part of the sunshine being shown around the campus.”

Hoagland said he and other faculty, though not all, have been impressed with Preston’s stewardship of the university since Dobelle’s departure. He said the fact that Westfield State has exceeded its budgeted student enrollment figures for next year is a sign that the spending controversy in the president’s office last year has not caused significant damage.

“Under her leadership, I think we have been able to weather the storm that Dobelle created,” Hoagland said. “We’re doing better than our sister institutions, despite Evan Dobelle. We’re very pleased.”

Policy reviews

In April, the university released a report by state Comptroller Martin Benison, who reviewed Westfield State’s financial policies and controls at Preston’s request. The review recommended areas of improvement and the university has in recent months revamped its financial management team, creating two new positions that focus on internal auditing and risk management who report to Kim Tobin, interim vice president of administration and finance. These staff will report directly to a new audit committee being set up by the university’s board of trustees.

“We had internal control problems dating back some time,” Preston said. The new staff, she said, “will be making sure we have a robust internal control plan.”

The university’s trustees will review several policy changes that came out of that review when they meet again in June.

Among one of the more significant changes during Preston’s tenure has been the elimination of many university credit cards and a move to using school purchasing cards, which is expected to save the school money. A recent case involving a former Framingham State University employee who allegedly spent $167,000 on purchasing cards suggests this system also can be abused if not properly monitored, however.

“It was just such an obvious thing to do,” said Preston, of eliminating many of Westfield State’s credit cards in the wake of Dobelle’s questionable spending. “There was no choice under the circumstances.”

Dobelle has maintained that he reimbursed the university for all his personal expenses during his tenure as president.

Board changes

As Preston and top administrators work to stabilize Westfield State’s financial affairs, its board of trustees is in transition as it seeks three more governor-appointed trustees to fill vacancies created by resignations and terms that are ending, including that of current board president, John F. Flynn III.

University officials say current board member and vice chairwoman Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the former Northwestern district attorney, is poised to become the next board president. She could be voted into the leadership post at the trustees’ next meeting June 26, according to Watson.

Preston said the goal is to diversify the backgrounds of board members, including bringing in trustees with expertise in finance and governance in higher education, among other areas. She said the university will submit several nominations next month for the governor to consider for appointments.

On Thursday, Westfield State announced that James C. Hagan, president and CEO of Westfield Bank, had been appointed as a trustee and joins the board next month. Hagan had previously served as a Westfield State trustee from 1996 to 2006, is a graduate of the school and is expected to bring an important business management and financial background to the board, according to university officials.

“As a Westfield State graduate, I am passionate about the university and its success,” Hagan said in a statement. “I consider this an important opportunity for me to use my management and fiduciary skills as well as my community relationships to help the university achieve its goals.”

Presidential search

The presidential search is not expected to ramp up until the fall when a full board is in place and a presidential search committee fully assembled. Trustees Steven Marcus and Terrell Hill have been appointed chairman and vice chairman of the presidential search committee along with Henry Thomas III, who is the state Department of Higher Education’s representative on the panel. Thomas is currently chairman of the University of Massachusetts board of trustees.

Preston said the university plans to launch a presidential search website. She also does not plan to apply for the permanent post.

The state commissioner for higher education, she said, “feels very strongly that someone serving in an interim role should not become university president.”

Preston is in her 24th year as an educator and administrator at Westfield State, having previously served as vice president of academic affairs, dean of faculty and as a tenured profession and chairwoman of the communication department.

Preston acknowledged that the university has taken hits to its public image, but she maintains the Dobelle affair is one chapter in the history of a long-running public institution. She said skepticism has been expressed by some financial donors in recent months, given the turmoil last year in the president’s office, but she said she is confident the university is moving in a better direction.

Enrollment is an at an all-time high and the university’s fully accredited nursing program graduated its first class of 21 nursing students this month, she noted. The university also plans to break ground on a $30 million science center, its first new academic building in 40 years.

After six months at the helm, she said, “I am much more optimistic about what did and what didn’t get damaged.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.