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North Idaho College pledges improvements in response to governance concerns

NIC campus reverse angle.jpg
North Idaho College
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The campus of North Idaho College, Coeur d'Alene.

North Idaho College says its divided board of trustees will work with the school’s interim president and others to improve its rancorous, disruptive behavior, and that the college’s operations “continue to thrive even with board governance concerns.”

In a January 4 letter to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the school defended itself against concerns that the board’s recent conduct continues to threaten the school’s accreditation.

NWCCU contacted North Idaho College on December 17, telling the school it might be out of compliance on more than a dozen criteria for eligibility for retaining its accreditation. Those potential violations revolved around concerns about the board’s decisions, driven by a three-person Republican majority; that the school’s relationship with NWCCU could be damaged; potential open meetings law violations; and that NIC might be drifting away from its core mission as an educational institution.

In reply, NIC argued that its educational mission continues unabated, that the board retroactively corrected its open meetings problems, and that top college executives have counseled the board to work more harmoniously.

One of the key issues NWCCU identified is churn at North Idaho College’s presidential level.

A three-person majority made up of then-chair Todd Banducci, Greg McKenzie and Michael Barnes fired NIC President Rick MacLennan without cause in September 2021. The school’s wrestling coach, Michael Sebaaly, was elevated to the role of interim president the following month. After Barnes and two other board members stepped down, interim trustees selected a new permanent president, Nick Swayne, in June 2022.

Election Day put Banducci and McKenzie back in power, because new board member Mike Waggoner joined the conservative bloc. December 9, the new majority put Swayne on administrative leave, ostensibly so newly-hired NIC attorney -- and ally of the majority -- Art Macomber could investigate language in Swayne’s contract that removed the board’s power to fire the president without cause.

In its December 17 letter, NWCCU implored the board of trustees to “immediately” reinstate Swayne as president. In a memo to the board two days later, interim college CEOs Lloyd Duman and Sarah Garcia “strongly recommended” following NWCCU’s advice.

But by the time that memo arrived, McKenzie, Banducci and Waggoner were heading in a different direction. After an unsuccessful attempt to lure Sebaaly back, trustees initiated an effort to gauge Greg South’s interest in being interim president. NIC’s January 4 letter said that decision took place at a special meeting December 17 – the same day NWCCU urged the board to put Swayne back in office.

There is no notice or record of the meeting on the school’s website. The NIC YouTube page, which hosts archived videos of board meetings, includes no footage of a December 17 meeting.

South’s hiring was confirmed at a subsequent meeting held December 21.

The college said South meets a leadership criterion for remaining eligible for accreditation. The letter also revealed that South will be allowed to “fill all vacant senior administrative positions.” The majority trio had moved to block Swayne from filling those positions in December.

South, his fellow executives and the board of trustees are “committed to…the goal of improved professional conduct, understanding of accreditation, an improved agenda setting process for meetings, and a greater understanding and application of their roles and responsibilities,” NIC’s response letter said.

The letter also said the board will seek information from experts in higher education and former college presidents to better follow Idaho state law, NWCCU policies, and NIC’s own policies and procedures.

Another portion of the NIC response said South and Macomber are working on responses to recent no-confidence votes rendered by student and faculty government groups; that public comment is allowed at all regular meetings; that Macomber and the board are working to address potential conflicts of interest; and that conflict-of-interest training will be strengthened.

“The incoming administration has pledged to work with the Board to organize the development of and to guide and coach trustees on the principals of good governance, including ethical behavior, with the goal of making continued progress outlined in the Action Letter of April 1, 2022 and any other deficiencies the Commission deems necessary,” the NIC response read.

It is not the first time NIC’s leadership echelon has promised to do better.

In May 2021, following complaints about the majority trio’s conduct, the college said it would take steps to bring the board in line with professional standards and policies. Board members participated in a governance retreat with the Association of Community College Trustees and committed to ongoing improvement. The board also issued a statement saying it “values and affirms the legitimate role…that the faculty, staff, administrators and students have on matters in which each has a reasonable interest.” The board said it understood those views must be “authentically considered.”

Nearly a year later, in April 2022, following more complaints and an NWCCU investigation, the commission placed NIC on warning status. In the letter confirming that warning, NWCCU mentioned the commitments the board made, and said the panel had failed to live up to them.

NWCCU wrote, “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 in the May 28, 2021 Board Statement to restore effective governance at North Idaho College.”

In its January 4 response, the college asked NWCCU to conduct an in-person visit “before any adverse action is considered by the Commission.” NIC said it has positives to share, in addition to the matters outlined in NWCCU’s warning and other messages.

NWCCU is slated to conduct a follow-up evaluation this spring as part of the warning process.

Read North Idaho College's response to NWCCU:

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.