Policymakers | Trusteeship

After Evan Dobelle scandal, state IG seeks mandatory training for university trustees

MASSLIVE.COM   |  July 6, 2015 by Dan Glaun

The prolific spending of former Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle has for years been the stuff of public investigation and public condemnation.

Dobelle’s actions — allegations of personal spending on university credit cards, misrepresentations to the university’s board of trustees about finances and the use of work flights to attend social events — were scrutinized in a 2014 Inspector General’s report, after he resigned in November of 2013. Dobelle embarked on a years-long legal battle with the university, culminating in an agreement for him to pay $185,000 to the school while not admitting any wrongdoing.

But now, Inspector General Glenn Cunha is looking beyond Dobelle himself, and beyond Westfield State, which has revamped its financial controls since the scandal.

Cunha has submitted a bill to the state legislature that would require training on state laws and financial responsibilities for all public college trustees, in what would be a significant change for a system of volunteer boards who regularly oversee nine-figure budgets with no formal instruction for members.

“A university or college board of trustees must oversee the institution’s operations, yet many board members do not fully understand their responsibilities, including their duty to ensure that the institution’s funds are spent appropriately,” Cunha said in testimony during a Joint Committee on Higher Education hearing on the training bill June 17.

The bill, which is supported by committee co-chair Rep. Tom Sannicandro, would have the state Department of Education establish a mandatory training program for trustees of public colleges and universities. Trustees would study state laws on open meetings, procurement, conflicts of interest and public records, and receive training on fraud prevention and fiduciary responsibilities.

In his testimony to the committee, Cunha said Westfield State’s board was ill equipped to oversee Dobelle’s spending during his tenure, and urged passage of the bill to prevent similar abuses across the state higher education system.

“The Office [of the Inspector General] also found that board members were unaware that they had both the right and the responsibility to question Dobelle’s expenditures and conduct,” Cunha said. “Dobelle’s blatant use of University funds for personal purposes over several years highlights the need for every state college and university to have a strong and informed board of trustees.”

Once Westfield State became aware of Dobelle’s spending and misrepresentations, Westfield State’s board immediately cooperated with the Inspector General and took steps to strengthen its controls, Westfield State University Board of Trustees Chair Elizabeth Scheibel said in an interview. The board launched an independent investigation, created an audit committee to oversee financial inspections, switched from credit cards to a more tightly controlled payment system and designed a more in-depth orientation for board members to improve understanding of university bylaws and state laws.

Scheibel said she fully supports the bill, and described it as an important measure to ensure that trustees – who are volunteers and may not have experience in overseeing public institutions – have the knowledge necessary to do their jobs.

“There is no training statewide,” Scheibel said. “Everyone ought to begin with a certain, fundamental level of knowledge about the process, about our responsibilities.”

Her board, Scheibel said, was misled by Dobelle and cooperated fully with the inspector general once it became suspicious of the former president’s spending.

“When we became aware of what he was doing, when it came to our attention, I believe the board was aggressive,” she said. “Is there a regret that we didn’t become aware of what he was doing sooner than we did? Sure, in retrospect.”

The establishment of mandatory training for public college trustees would place Massachusetts in rare company, according to Michael Poliakoff, Vice President of Policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He was only aware of laws requiring training in Texas and Virginia, though he added that the Council had not conducted a formal survey.

In a 2014 report, his organization called for more trustee education and cited training programs in Missouri, Florida and Indiana as possible models. The goal, he said, is to instill accountability and oversight into how boards operate.

“We’ve always felt the best possible thing is for each board to make that a part of its culture,” Poliakoff said.

The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees did not return a request for comment.

The state Department of Higher Education told MassLive it does not have a formal position on the bill, but touted its efforts to organize trainings and discussions with boards of trustees.

“The Office of Trustee Relations allows the Department of Higher Education to convene the trustees of local boards for important trainings and discussions about their fiduciary responsibilities to the institutions they serve,” said Dena Papanikolaou, the department’s General Counsel. “The Westfield Board of Trustees has been deeply engaged in this work, seeking every opportunity for trainings, seminars and informal collaboration with other campus boards.”

Sannicandro, the chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Higher Education, said supports the bill and is loosely targeting late July for reporting it out of committee. He has met privately with the inspector general on the issue, he said, and believes it is important to make sure trustees are aware of their roles and commitments.

“It’s a bill that makes sense to me. I think it’s important to have the people on these boards understand their responsibilities,” Sannicandro said. “By educating these folks, it’s going to make a big difference as we move on.””


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