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Cambridge College chief put on leave

Use of funds, hiring of contractor questioned

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda K. Wertheimer
Globe Staff / December 14, 2007

Cambridge College trustees placed the school's president, Mahesh Sharma, on a six-week paid leave yesterday after concluding that he tried to use school funds for his nephew's college tuition and appointed a college vice president whose company had a contract with the school worth at least $170,000.

Trustee K. Dun Gifford said it is unlikely that Sharma, who has worked at the college for more than 30 years and served as president since 2003, will be allowed to remain president of the nontraditional college, which caters to working adults who need college degrees to advance in their profession. Two other college officials and a lawyer hired by the college said no final decision will be made until the completion of an internal review of Sharma's handling of college accounts and administrative appointments.

"We don't have any answers yet," said Boston attorney Robert Smith. "Nobody has had the time to put together the full picture and learn all the facts."

At an emergency meeting Wednesday, trustees unanimously agreed to place Sharma on leave and handed presidential responsibilities over to Eileen Brown, who founded the college in 1971 and has been serving as chancellor. Nishikant Sonwalkar, the vice president Sharma appointed, left his college post this week over concerns about his dual role as college administrator and chairman of iDL Systems, a distance learning company that has a contract with Cambridge College.

"I feel sad for the college," said Brown, who informed faculty and staff members of the leadership change via e-mail and in meetings yesterday. "I feel determined to get every single thing straightened out. I have a deep hope that the college itself and our students won't be hurt."

Sharma did not respond to a call to his Framingham residence seeking comment.

A Globe inquiry last week prompted trustees, who already were concerned about the vice president's hiring, to meet informally this weekend to discuss the president's actions, Gifford said. Cambridge College serves about 2,000 students at three Cambridge sites, and another 6,000 at satellite campuses across the country.

The concerns about Sharma are twofold, Gifford and other college officials said: Whether he set out to misuse college funds when he had a check made out for his nephew's tuition and whether he purposely did not fully disclose his intention to hire Sonwalkar as an administrator.

Documents provided to the Globe included a letter by Sharma to the director of a college in India saying he was sponsoring his nephew as a first-year student, and a copy of the $1,850 check he enclosed for the first semester's fee. The treasurer's check, dated June 26, 2007, and made out to the Indian college's director, lists Cambridge College as the remitter.

The college's investigation concluded that the money was from Cambridge College's account, but the check was never cashed because Sharma's nephew did not attend the college, Gifford said. The money was restored to the college's account, he said.

"No one at Cambridge College, including the president, would tell you it wasn't wrong," said Smith, the attorney. "It was a mistake, but thankfully, no money changed hands."

In the case of Sonwalkar's hiring, trustees first became concerned about a possible conflict of interest months ago, Smith and college officials said. In 2004, the college signed a contract with Boston-based iDL Systems worth more than $170,000, according to a copy of the contract provided to the Globe.

Sonwalkar, the chairman of the company and a former MIT professor, initially worked in a consulting role for Cambridge College as his company provided online courses for management students. Then, over time, he was hired in various roles at the college, including visiting professor, and caught the attention of trustees when he was promoted to vice president this summer.

Sonwalkar could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Brown said Sharma informed her over the summer he wanted to have Sonwalkar as a vice president, but at the time, she was not directly involved in day-to-day college affairs.

Gifford - president of Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a Boston nonprofit health-food advocacy group - said trustees should have received full disclosure of the potential conflict from both Sonwalkar and Sharma.

"There was an escalation of title and responsibility over what we thought was a contractual relationship," Gifford said. "It was a responsibility creep."

Linda Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.

President Mahesh Sharma has been accused of an attempt to misuse funds and conflict of interest in hiring.

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