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North Idaho College accreditation issues move to next step, as college receives “show-cause” letter from accreditor

An aerial photo of North Idaho College's campus in Coeur d'Alene
North Idaho College, via Flickr
North Idaho College's campus in Coeur d'Alene

The process of reviewing North Idaho College’s accreditation moved forward Thursday, with a letter from the school’s accreditor asking the community college in Coeur d’Alene to explain why it should not lose the accreditation it has held since 1947.

The letter from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) is called a “show-cause” message. Addressed to NIC Board of Trustees Chair Greg McKenzie and the school’s interim president, Greg South, the letter says in part that NIC’s response to a previous inquiry letter and the board’s “recent and continuing public actions” failed to convince NWCCU that the college is in compliance with a number of eligibility requirements and standards for accreditation.

The letter gives NIC a March 13 deadline to state its case.

NWCCU’s letter recaps multiple problems at the school. Most of the issues are tied to the actions of a three-person conservative bloc on NIC’s five-person board of trustees, dating at least from the September 2021 firing of former college president Rick MacLennan without cause.

The letter lists eight major concerns. They include uncertainty about NIC’s leadership; two active lawsuits against the school over the board’s actions; declining enrollment and a “continued exodus” of faculty, staff and administrators; and multiple no-confidence resolutions adopted by NIC’s faculty, staff and student government organizations.

NWCCU reiterated its concern about the conservative majority’s decision in early December to suspend NIC President Nick Swayne after he questioned the legality of hiring Coeur d’Alene attorney Art Macomber as the school’s official counsel. Macomber told Swayne the administrative leave was not for disciplinary reasons.

Swayne sued the trustees and the college shortly thereafter, contending the board didn’t have the power to sideline him and asking to be reinstated. Instead, the majority trio hired Greg South to be the college’s interim president and gave him an 18-month contract. He was allowed to make hiring decisions that Swayne was barred from making, and his photo and bio have replaced those of Swayne on the school’s website.

Swayne’s civil suit is proceeding through Kootenai County District Court.

The NWCCU Board of Commissioners reviewed the NIC situation at a January 26 meeting and concluded that “the NIC Board of Trustees has not shown sufficient responsiveness to previous Commission action and, thus, fails to sufficiently appreciate the jeopardy it is placing the institution in with respect to the welfare and viability of the institution – much less its membership status with NWCCU.”

Despite assurances from the college that it is working on the issues covered in various warning and concern letters sent by NWCCU since March 2022, the show-cause message said, “Numerous complaints from members of the NIC and Coeur d’Alene communities have continued to be received by NWCCU; ongoing actions of the NIC Board – some documented in the press – continue to place the institution at risk for viability.”

Losing accreditation is a serious matter for a higher education institution. It would mean credits from classes taken at NIC would likely not transfer to another college or university, and students would not be eligible for most forms of federal aid. It would also affect eligibility for student scholarships, and damage the college’s dual-enrollment programs with local high schools. One school, the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy, has already reduced its dual-credit relationship with NIC, and another district has discussed the possibility.

In testimony to the Idaho Senate Education Committee January 25, NIC interim president Greg South told lawmakers the college’s situation was “very serious,” but also expressed confidence the school could satisfy NWCCU’s concerns.

“If they place us on show-cause – what does that mean?” South said. “That means, show us how you’re going to fix it. And as long as we demonstrate to them that we’re working in that direction, I have confidence that we’ll work through this.”

South also told lawmakers that loss of accreditation would not happen immediately.

South and two members of the college’s board of trustees met Friday with NWCCU chairman Sonny Ramaswamy.

“The NWCCU made it clear that they want to see NIC succeed yet were serious in their message that everyone on the board must take responsibility for actions that have caused and are causing problems with the college’s accreditation,” South wrote in a message to NIC employees Friday evening.

The show-cause order issued Thursday also requires NIC to come up with a teach-out plan, which is a written guide for the college to ensure its current students have an opportunity to complete their course of study should the school lose its accreditation.

NWCCU says it will conduct an on-site evaluation at North Idaho College April 17 and 18 to see if the school is actually implementing steps to address the concerns raised in the show cause letter and its previous messages to the college.

South’s message to employees said the NWCCU committee will meet again in June to deliberate the college’s fate. If a negative decision is rendered, NIC has an opportunity to appeal in July, South said. But his note also made clear that the college’s timeline for improvement is running out.

“While the next six months outlined above involve multiple steps, the most important step is occurring right now – the recognition by the board and the NIC community that there are no additional chances,” South said. “This is an accreditation issue for North Idaho College as it stands today, with the people in the current roles that they hold.”

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This story was updated to include comments from NIC interim president Greg South.

Read NWCCU's February 9 show-cause letter to North Idaho College:

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.