The Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner addressed the controversy surrounding Westfield State University President Evan Dobelle during a visit to Springfield on Wednesday. Richard Freeland also sounded an alarm about the state’s future ability to produce a properly educated workforce.
Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland said the Westfield State University Board of Trustees took the right actions last week by putting Dobelle on paid leave and hiring a Boston law firm to investigate allegations Dobelle spent indiscriminately on travel and entertainment. However, Freeland said he is not ready to recommend lifting a freeze on some state funding for the school.
The results of the board of trustees ordered investigation of Dobelle are due November 25th
Earlier this month, Freeland suspended $197,000 in state grants to the school and put a hold on a $2 million earmark to build a new science center. He took the action after Dobelle failed to comply with a deadline Freeland set for an explanation about the questionable expenses.
Dobelle and other staff members at the university racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges on foreign and domestic trips that were billed to the school and its fundraising arm the Westfield State Foundation. Dobelle has also been accused of violating university policy by charging personal expenses that he later reimbursed.
In a letter before last week’s marathon 10-hour meeting, Freeland urged the board of trustees to take steps to mitigate the damage that has been done to the state’s public colleges and universities by Dobelle’s behavior. Freeland says he fears the controversy will feed public cynicism about the higher education system.
Freeland scoffed at accusations made by Dobelle’s hired spokesman that the commissioner has a vendetta against Dobelle and covets the Westfield State University presidency for himself.
Freeland also appeared unconcerned about the threat of being named a defendant in a lawsuit Dobelle’s spokesman said is in the works that will allege the actions by the board and state education officials have violated Dobelle’s civil rights.
Before speaking with reporters, Freeland had a private meeting with members of the Springfield Business Leaders for Education. He said he made a case for increased state funding for education.
The commissioner’s office issued a report earlier this month that projected by 2020 the state’s public colleges and universities will not produce enough graduates to fill high demand jobs in health care, science and finance.
Jeff Ciuffreda, the president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce said it points to the need for more dialogue between the business community and educators.
Freeland told a state legislative committee earlier this week that rising student loan debt also poses a threat to the state’s innovation driven economy.