WESTFIELD, Mass. (WWLP/AP) - State Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland has frozen $197,000 in funding for Westfield State University after its president missed a deadline to explain travel spending criticized by the school's outside auditor and the state inspector general.
Freeland also announced late Friday he's recommending withholding another $2 million for a planned science center.
Freeland had set a Thursday deadline for President Evan Dobelle to submit his report. Dobelle asked for an extension until Monday. That was denied.
Freeland spokeswoman Katy Abel said the commissioner hopes to work with Westfield trustees to resolve concerns about the university's financial management and restore the funds.
Dobelle's spokesman George Regan called Freeland's move "bizarre" and an attempt to "blackmail" the trustees instead of waiting for a comprehensive response to his questions.
Students are upset; they are suffering as the spending probe gets sorted out.
"Well I mean the students are just talking, it's a lot of gossip about how they don't know whether to trust him or not,” said Jefferson Willis. “But I mean, if he makes a public statement that apologizes, or explains it, the fact that he's hiding it makes it a little sketchy."
"We're just really confused,” said Caylie Ascolillo. “None of us really know what's going on; we just know something serious is going on. We keep getting notifications from social media, but we're just all really confused."
Dobelle has said his spending benefited the university.
The following statement is from Katy Abel, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education:
After careful consideration, Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland has rejected President Evan Dobelle’s 11th-hour request for additional time to answer questions prompted by the O’Connor and Drew report and the September 19th letter issued by the Office of the Inspector General. He believes President Dobelle and his legal team have had ample opportunity to respond to these questions. He has had the O’Connor and Drew report for several months and has repeatedly rejected requests to answer these allegations. Indeed, in discussions with the Department about an extension, President Dobelle’s attorney refused to indicate what information would be contained in the report they promised to submit next week.
Given his serious concerns about the administration of state funding at Westfield under President Dobelle’s leadership, Commissioner Freeland has suspended $197,762 in Vision Project Performance Incentive Grant funding to the University, effective immediately. Additionally, he will recommend that the Commonwealth suspend a $2 million appropriation for a planned Science Center, which would be the first academic addition to the campus in forty years.
Commissioner Freeland believes that President Dobelle owes Massachusetts taxpayers and members of the Westfield State communityanswers about the questionable expenditures of public funds. He urges the President to provide these answers to the public without further delay. In the meantime, Commissioner Freeland and the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education will work with the Westfield board to find an appropriate resolution that would allow the state to resume funding of these projects.
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