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Westfield State University president, board grilled on spending

SARAH GANZHORN
Belchertown's Breanne Moreau defends the ball against Minnechaug Regional's Taylor Coopee during a girls' soccer game at Belchertown Friday afternoon. Moreau had one goal and one assist in the game, helping lead the Lady Orioles to a 2-0 victory over Minnechaug.

SARAH GANZHORN Belchertown's Breanne Moreau defends the ball against Minnechaug Regional's Taylor Coopee during a girls' soccer game at Belchertown Friday afternoon. Moreau had one goal and one assist in the game, helping lead the Lady Orioles to a 2-0 victory over Minnechaug.

“I think everything we’ve spent was strategically planned,” Dobelle told reporters before a closed-door meeting with Richard Freeland, the state’s commissioner of higher education, and other officials. Dobelle, who has asserted that the spending resulted in a significant “return on investment” for the public university in western Massachusetts, said he was proud of his accomplishments as president.

During a public meeting of the state Board of Higher Education earlier Friday, Freeland pressed university trustees about their knowledge of Dobelle’s expenses — including luxury hotels and high-priced meals during overseas travel — that were first detailed in a report last month by the school’s accounting firm.

Freeland called Dobelle’s spending “a pattern of seemingly excessive and indulgent personal and professional expenses.”

Charles Desmond, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, said he wasn’t satisfied with Dobelle’s response to the reports — or with what he said was a lack of urgency by the school’s trustees.

Jack Flynn, chairman of the Westfield board of trustees, acknowledged that Dobelle violated policy by using a university credit card for personal expenses. He explained that the board, a volunteer body that meets only a handful of times each year, only recently learned the scope of the issues and cannot “micromanage” the university.

The power to hire or fire the leader of a state university lies solely with the trustees of a school. Flynn said the Westfield board would address the matter at its next board meeting on Oct. 24, weighing both the alleged violations and Dobelle’s achievements in his six years as president.

“There has to be some real soul-searching and some decisions that we all have to make, the president (and) the board,” Flynn said after the meeting with higher education board. “Is this a good relationship? Can we move on and how can we move on?”

Dobelle said he was following past practice by university administrators in charging personal expenses to the school’s credit card and later reimbursing the school. He said he saw no reason for the trustees to dismiss him, and asked if he would consider resigning, responded: “Why would I?”

In a two-page letter sent on Thursday, state Inspector General Glenn Cunha urged trustees to challenge Dobelle’s claim that his international travel has resulted in $1.2 million in recurring annual revenue from international students. Cunha said the majority of those students were in fact Massachusetts residents who pay in-state tuition though they are not U.S. citizens.

Cunha also questioned spending by the Westfield State Foundation, the school’s fundraising arm, and the taxpayer-supported university’s 2010 transfer of $400,000 to offset the foundation’s operating deficit that had been caused in part, the inspector general said, by Dobelle’s spending habits.

Freeland noted that Westfield had the highest graduation rate among the nine state universities, but was at the bottom in private fundraising — further calling into question Dobelle’s claims that his spending netted a financial windfall for the school.

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