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North Idaho College accreditation threatened by trustees’ actions, report says

North Idaho College.jpg
North Idaho College
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North Idaho College (FILE PHOTO)

North Idaho College's accreditation is at risk over concerns about academic freedom, poor ethical standards, and shaky financial health, according to a report from the group that accredits the school.

Representatives of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) virtually interviewed faculty, staff, students and administrators at NIC’s Coeur d’Alene campus in January to learn more about allegations against the school’s Board of Trustees – specifically, a three-person majority that fired NIC’s president last fall and who appear to be at the center of an exodus from the college’s leadership echelon.

That majority was composed of Chairman Todd Banducci, Vice Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Michael Barnes. Their actions “led to the departure of all three Vice Presidents and one Dean[,] removing much of the experienced senior leadership since the Commission’s last review just one year ago,” according to the NWCCU report. “Therefore, the foundation upon which NIC holds its accreditation essentially has changed significantly.”

The NWCCU committee commended the remaining administrators for stepping into the breach to keep the school operational, but noted NIC students, faculty and staff are broadly mistrustful of and skeptical toward the trustees, creating a bad environment for the college.

“The Panel observed a widespread perception that issues of current and future instability lie with disruptive actions taken by the NIC Board of Trustees, which threaten the viability of an important community educational institution,” the report said.

Friction between former NIC President Rick MacLennan and the board majority is a major factor in the complaints filed against the trustees. MacLennan was fired without cause in September 2021. The following month, MacLennan sued NIC, Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes. He and the school reached a settlement in early January. Its terms were not disclosed.

The search for MacLennan’s successor touched off further controversy, the NWCCU panel found.

Ultimately, the school’s head wrestling coach, Dr. Michael Sebaaly, was tapped to become interim president. He holds a doctorate in educational leadership, but had no prior experience in higher education administration. One trustee told the NWCCU team that the job standards were re-written “to be far less demanding” than those used in previous presidential hiring searches. The board’s deliberations were held behind closed doors, and no input was drawn from faculty, staff or students. Sebaaly was chosen by the three-person board majority.

Barnes quit the board in mid-January over concerns that he failed to meet residency requirements. His departure left the body split in half and “barely functional,” the report’s authors noted.

The report said Banducci, who took over as board chair in 2020, considers it his job to rid the college of leaders he considers part of the “deep state” and to appoint a new president who will change NIC’s direction. His questioning of “controversial” course materials raised fears among faculty that they could lose tenure or be fired if they run afoul of Banducci. Faculty members who spoke to the NWCCU investigation team also said Banducci pressured them over Covid protocols, and even involved himself in a dispute over student grades.

Banducci's behavior toward students, staff and fellow trustees has caused problems for the college for more than a year, according to reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The tumult has rattled the school’s financial supporters and put NIC’s financial health in jeopardy. The NIC Foundation – the school’s fundraising organ – said $4.1 million in legacy gifts and $343,000 in major gifts have already been pulled out, and thousands more dollars in annual giving are at risk. In mid-December, credit rating agency Moody’s lowered NIC’s bond rating from “stable” to “negative.” The agency said its decision was motivated by the administrative upheaval, the accreditation review, concerns about enrollment and the donation losses. A lowered credit rating may make it more expensive for the school to take out loans.

The accreditation review team’s report praised the work of NIC’s finance team, including a string of “clean” audits. But it also said the NIC Foundation has significant concerns about how the trustees controversy will affect their efforts, and that the Foundation board does not trust the Board of Trustees.

So far, NIC’s public response to the report has been brief.

“We’ve been through a turbulent time and reading the peer panel report will likely stir emotions for you. It did for me,” Sebaaly wrote on the school’s website. “We will get through this together.”

The panel made seven recommendations in its report. Among them is a recommendation that the accreditation board put NIC on probation and create a schedule under which the college would be required to come into compliance, fix its problems and re-earn its good standing. Another recommendation calls for the Idaho State Board of Education to supervise NIC's compliance efforts.

NIC has until March 12 to assemble a response to the peer panel's findings. At a later date, Sebaaly will meet with the NWCCU executive committee, and the Board of Commissioners will then vote on what actions, if any, to take. Sebaaly indicated the commissioners' final decision may by known by the end of this month or early in April.

The college has been directed not to talk about the report until after NWCCU issues its decision, said NIC communications officer Laura Rumpler.

Should NIC lose its accreditation, the institution and its students would be affected. Students would become ineligible for most forms of federal aid money. Credits earned at NIC would probably not be accepted by other institutions.

“If accreditation is lost, the value of a degree from NIC will be significantly reduced, or even negated entirely, for all students,” the Idaho State Board of Education said in response to questions from the Coeur d’Alene Press last December.

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This story was updated Thursday, March 10, to include a comment from NIC Communications Officer Laura Rumpler.