The best way for concerned alumni and supporters to hold university leaders accountable for irresponsible financial decisions is by withholding contributions. Westfield State University, which is under siege for its president’s lavish spending, is now feeling precisely that kind of sting. More than any internal investigation or state reprimand, a loss of donor funds hits a university where it hurts — and provides a potent reminder to administrators of the need to be careful when using university funds.
Westfield State President Evan Dobelle is seeking to improve his university’s reputation — and attract a broader, more diverse student body — by appealing to international students and emphasizing nearby assets such as Tanglewood, about 45 minutes away. That much is admirable, and the university is rising in the much-watched US News and World Report rankings. Even a controversial celebrity speaker series that cost the university $500,000 might have helped improve Westfield State’s reputation.
But other spending decisions by Dobelle clearly went beyond what was necessary to boost the university’s reputation, including the purchase of expensive concert tickets, gourmet restaurant meals, and luxury travel in Asia — much of it to the president’s own benefit. Even worse, about $180,000 of the disputed spending came from a university foundation that responded by cutting student scholarships. Attorney General Martha Coakley is looking into the matter. But Coakley has only a limited purview, and many of these types of expenses can be legally justifiable but still defy common sense.
Thus, it’s in the university’s ultimate interest that one of Westfield State’s top donors, John Walsh, the president of Elizabeth Grady skin care salons, decided to take matters into his own hands. He said he is rescinding a $100,000 pledge for school scholarships and educational programs because he’s “appalled” by Dobelle’s spending decisions. That’s just one donor’s opinion, but it’s certain to be taken seriously by the Westfield State trustees and the university community.