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Cambridge College fires its president

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda Wertheimer
Globe Staff / January 5, 2008

Cambridge College trustees fired the school's president yesterday after a lawyer presented evidence of widespread problems with the leader's hiring and financial practices, including the use of a college credit card to buy rugs for his home.

The board, which voted 20 to 0 to fire Mahesh Sharma, cited financial matters and conflicts of interest in hiring as the cause for termination, a school spokesman said.

The board terminated Sharma "based on an extensive review of issues related to his management of Cambridge College," trustee chairman Jonathan Larsen said in a statement.

Jack K. Merrill, a Framingham-based lawyer representing Sharma, said Sharma was overseas and did not want to comment.

"I have spoken to Mahesh Sharma; he is extremely disappointed in the decision," Merrill said. "He continues to maintain he hasn't done anything wrong and that he hasn't attempted to deprive the college of any funds."

Merrill said he did not know whether Sharma would pursue the matter further with the college.

Sharma, president of the school since 2003, had been placed on a six-week leave on Dec. 13, after a school investigation concluded that he tried to use college funds for his nephew's college tuition and appointed a consultant who had a lucrative contract with the institution to a high-level post at the school.

The college hired a lawyer to investigate further, and as more complaints surfaced, trustees decided to act sooner.

During a three-hour closed meeting at the college yesterday, Boston lawyer Robert Smith delivered evidence that Sharma had made questionable hirings and repeatedly attempted to use school funds inappropriately.

Sharma, according to the lawyer's report, used a college-issued credit card for personal expenses, including purchasing more than $5,000 in rugs for his home, said two sources familiar with the ongoing investigation of Sharma's activities. Sharma's pay was docked for the personal purchases, and the school did not lose money, the sources said.

Sharma's $320,000 annual pay and benefits will stop immediately, a school spokesman said. Trustees and college officials did not want to comment other than in a prepared statement from Larsen. Chancellor Eileen Brown will serve as interim president until the college hires a permanent replacement, Larsen said.

The college, which has about 2,000 students at three sites in Cambridge and another 6,000 at campuses across the country, primarily serves adults seeking college degrees as a way to advance in their careers.

Some trustees first became concerned about Sharma's management during the summer, after he named Nishikant Sonwalkar a vice president of the college. Sonwalkar was also chairman of iDL Systems, a distance-learning company with at least a $170,000 contract with Cambridge College. Viewing the appointment as a potential conflict of interest, trustees asked Sonwalkar to leave his college post in mid-December.

After a Globe inquiry, trustees began investigating whether Sharma had tried to inappropriately use college funds. Documents provided anonymously to the Globe before his suspension included a copy of a $1,850 check for tuition to a college in India and Sharma's letter to the director of that college indicating that he was sponsoring his nephew as a first-year student.

The check, which was from a Cambridge College account, was never cashed, but trustees became further concerned when a school probe showed that Sharma had apparently directed a lower-level official to write a note saying the check was for a conference.

After Sharma was put on leave, college employees informed trustees of more possible spending and management issues, including the allegation that Sharma and Sonwalkar set up a college in Mumbai, India, despite the board's disapproval of such an idea.

Attorneys for both Sharma and Sonwalkar have said that the pair dropped plans for the India satellite campus after the board's decision.

Sharma, a mathematician, began as an adjunct lecturer at the nontraditional college in the 1970s. He went on to become a professor, provost, and senior vice president before becoming president.

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

Mahesh Sharma, a mathematician, began as an adjunct lecturer at the nontraditional school in the 1970s.

Management questioned

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