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University professors are often challenged with how to effectively engage their students by making the curriculum more relevant. Thanks to their former President Evan Dobelle, the professors of Westfield State University’s highly regarded criminal justice program will no longer have that problem when students return to campus. On August 7, Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against Dobelle in Suffolk Superior Court alleging violations of the state False Claims Act for inappropriately spending nearly $100,000 in university funds on such things as family vacations and meals at expensive restaurants.

If anyone believes, however, that Dobelle will step forward and accept responsibility for his actions, then you don’t know the man. His modus operandi is to point the finger at those around him as the true culprits. He has already alleged in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year that Westfield’s Board of Trustees were co-conspirators in forcing his retirement and in doing so irreparably damaged his reputation. It is likely that Dobelle will again place the blame on university trustees for the allegations contained in Coakley lawsuit. Only this time around, he has a strong point.

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I believe that Dobelle should be held accountable to the full extent of the law. But to say he is the only one to blame ignores the role of the university’s board of trustees. Their obligation is to act as stewards overseeing the financial stability of the organization in concert with its mission. Westfield’s trustees failed miserably in this regard.

Dobelle was hired by Westfield State after he had been fired as president of the University of Hawaii for you guessed it: “extravagant personal spending of university funds.” At the time of his termination, one University of Hawaii trustee was quoted as saying Dobelle “simply has no integrity and you cannot trust him.”

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The fact that Westfield even hired Dobelle under these circumstances is astounding. But what is even more shocking is that the trustees failed to put into place the appropriate controls to monitor and prevent Dobelle from engaging in the same activity that got him fired from the University of Hawaii. Once the Westfield State trustees discovered the inappropriate activities, Dobelle should have been terminated for cause immediately. Instead, their actions (or rather lack thereof), helped to create the scandal which has beset the Westfield State campus for the past year.

Deterrence is one of the fundamental aims of the criminal justice system. So how is the filing of a suit against Dobelle a deterrent to trustees who might act similarly to those of Westfield State? The answer: it isn’t. Coakley needs to turn her attention to the Westfield’s trustees and file suit against them for breaches of their fiduciary duty of care. By law, it is their responsibility to act with reasonable care when they take action (or inaction) on behalf of the university.

A reasonable board of trustees would have been able to prevent, or at least greatly inhibit, Dobelle’s criminal behavior. A lawsuit by Coakley against Westfield’s trustees would certainly get the attention of nonprofit trustees across the state and remind them of their obligations to the organizations they represent.

Some people will say that such a move by Coakley would discourage others from serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations for fear of liability exposure. This reasoning ignores the reality of the prospective director marketplace. There are a substantial number of highly qualified individuals who are willing to serve on a nonprofit board and who understand the associated responsibilities.

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There will always be people like Evan Dobelle who will abuse the public’s trust, cast aside anything resembling ethics, and line their pockets at the expense of the intended beneficiaries (in this case, the Westfield State community). This is why there needs to be attentive and engaged boards of trustees to prevent people like Dobelle from plundering their organizations.


Mark Rogers is the CEO of BoardProspects.com, the largest online community of current and prospective corporate directors in the United States.