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Swayne and NIC await ruling on injunction request

A sign outside a courtroom that reads "IN SESSION"
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News

North Idaho College and its suspended president, Nick Swayne, await a judge’s ruling on Swayne’s request to block the school from making substantial organizational and operational changes until his civil suit is resolved.

In a three-and-a-half-hour hearing in Kootenai County District Court Friday, lawyers for Swayne and the college argued their views in front of Judge Cynthia Meyer, and Swayne testified that he thinks decisions the college is making or may make in the near future will make his job harder if and when he returns to the president’s office.

A three-member conservative majority on the NIC Board of Trustees placed Swayne on leave December 8. NIC attorney – and ally of the majority – Art Macomber indicated that a change made to Swayne’s contract last year, approved in a public meeting, may have violated Idaho open meetings law. Swayne said Friday Macomber’s explanation wasn’t “100 percent clear” to him.

After the vote that sidelined him, Swayne received three more messages from Macomber. Two of them restated the rules for his behavior during the leave period, such as not conducting business on campus or accessing NIC computers, and stating that Swayne was not on leave for any disciplinary reason. The third, in late January, broadened the edict to forbid Swayne from speaking about NIC business with anyone off-campus, and warning him against speaking to the press. “Freedom of speech has costs,” the message reportedly said.

But none of the three messages explained what Macomber’s investigation was looking for, or whether it had found anything, Swayne testified. He said he had received no updates from any official source since his suspension was announced.

One of Swayne’s key contentions in court was that payroll changes under consideration, hires made to the presidential cabinet, and the continuing risk of the loss of NIC’s accreditation will make Swayne’s job much harder upon his return, effectively robbing him of the opportunity to govern the school.

Tara Malek, a lawyer representing Swayne, pointed out that Swayne’s 2022 employment contract with NIC contained no explicit permission to place him on leave. Attorney Bret Walther, representing NIC, countered that the contract didn’t explicitly forbid it, either.

Walter argued Swayne’s complaint did not meet the legal standards necessary to justify an injunction, and that decisions that make his job harder aren’t the same thing as “irreparable harm.” Walther asked for the injunction request to be denied. Walther also said Swayne would likely not be held responsible for the decisions that have landed NIC in trouble with its students, faculty, staff and accrediting agency. That blame, Walther said, is falling on the board, not Swayne, something he argued weakened Swayne’s claim of irreparable harm.

“Everything that’s happening to the college is a cost to me – my integrity, confidence that has been lost,” Swayne said. “It may be hard to put a dollar value on, but those are all costs to me, my reputation and my workload going forward.”

Malek argued that NIC’s board is taking advantage of Swayne’s imposed absence to put a different stamp on the college. She pointed to the hiring of Greg South as the school’s interim president and the subsequent removal of Swayne’s bio and photo from the school’s public website, proposed changes to athletic staff salaries and a possible move to a different athletic conference. Swayne has a right to work and govern North Idaho College as his contract promised, Malek argued, adding that NIC appeared to be trying to force Swayne out.

At the college’s request, Walther asked Judge Meyer to appoint a mediator in an attempt to resolve Swayne’s civil suit before it reaches trial. Meyer said she typically would grant such a request, but did not issue a formal order Friday.

After hearing a final time from Malek and Walther, Meyer said she needed more time to study the issues raised, applicable Idaho law and the evidence submitted in support of Swayne’s request. Meyer said she understood the urgency of the situation, and said she would aim to issue a ruling “sooner rather than later.”

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.