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Regional News

Northwest higher ed accreditation agency puts North Idaho College on warning status

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

North Idaho College escaped probation, but received a warning from its accreditation organization stemming from problems with the college’s Board of Trustees.

The warning came in a letter to NIC Interim President Michael Sebaaly late on Friday, April 1. In that message, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) said NIC, located in Coeur d’Alene, was out of compliance in one of the group’s criteria for maintaining accreditation: governance.

In February, a specially-convened NWCCU investigative panel determined a three-person majority on NIC’s publicly-elected Board of Trustees created an atmosphere of distrust among faculty, students and staff, and eroded NIC’s financial stability and operations.

The panel recommended probation for the school, but the NWCCU executive committee opted to issue a warning. Over at least the next year, NIC will be monitored by NWCCU to see that it is making progress to straighten out its board difficulties and get back into good standing.

One early test will come this week, when the four-person board is set to consider candidates to fill the fifth seat, a vacancy created when former trustee Michael Barnes resigned under questions about his residency. Some documents indicated his primary residence was in South Dakota, not northern Idaho, as required for holding the trustee seat.

Getting the board to work together effectively may not be an easy issue to solve. Since early 2021 the panel has been at odds, with Barnes, along with Chair Todd Banducci and Vice-Chair Greg McKenzie forming a powerful triumvirate. On the other side were trustees Ken Howard and Christie Wood, who have both expressed their concerns about leadership under Banducci’s majority.

It was that majority that fired former NIC president Rick MacLennan last September. MacLennan, who had clashed with Banducci, was fired without cause. The college has argued that action was allowed under MacLennan’s contract. In the tumult afterward, three of the college’s deans resigned. The NWCCU investigation team found that donors pulled back more than $4 million in pledges and major gifts. Last December, credit rating agency Moody’s lowered NIC’s bond rating, which may make it more expensive for the school to take out loans.

In an e-mail exchange with a student, Banducci painted himself as an adversary fighting “liberal progressives” that were “deeply entrenched.” In the same e-mail, Banducci said he was “battling the NIC deep state.”

"I have no vendetta against this college," Banducci said during a March 23 Board of Trustees meeting. "That's nonsense. Believe what you want, but I have nothing against NIC at all."

He said his critics were engaging in "cancel culture" and character assassination. He also criticized people concerned about the controversy as engaging in an unimportant "soap opera."

The NWCCU warning letter noted that the board agreed to clean up its act in May of 2021, but had failed to follow through.

“The Commission concludes that the NIC Board of Trustees’ actions to date do not provide assurance that the Board has or will follow through with the steps agreed to…to restore effective governance at North Idaho College,” the letter read.

But the board is being given a second chance. NWCCU is requiring the panel to fill the board seat opened when Barnes resigned, and that the board review, affirm and adheres to its own policies and those of the college, especially “those pertaining to appropriate roles and responsibilities, expectations, professional conduct and ethics, and grievance procedures.”

The board will also be required to submit to NWCCU meeting agendas and draft minutes, links to video recordings of its meetings, lists of public comments, and notifications of any changes to board membership. NWCCU is also requiring reports on the process to find MacLennan’s permanent successor, and regular updates on the college’s full-time equivalent student population and comparisons to previous years.

During the warning period, the school will retain its accreditation, a status Interim President Michael Sebaaly highlighted in a message to faculty and staff.

“NIC diplomas hold the same value today as they did yesterday, and they will continue to do so. Credits will transfer,” Sebaaly wrote. “Please be ambassadors for the college and share this information with your students, and those you know in the community.”

Sebaaly says two public forums will be scheduled this week for college leadership to talk about the NWCCU warning and what steps will follow.

NWCCU will re-evaluate NIC’s warning status after a review in the spring of 2023, or perhaps earlier, depending on the commission’s evaluations. If the college fails to improve, the commission said, a probation could be issued.

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This story was updated April 5 to include comments from Todd Banducci.