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North Idaho College acknowledges problems, asks for leniency in accreditation case

In a response letter to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, North Idaho College acknowledged its trustees’ decisions have been disruptive for the college and its community, and asked NWCCU not to strip the school’s accreditation.

The 36-page response, filed Thursday night, is NIC’s official reply to a “show cause” letter NWCCU issued in February. The show-cause message listed eight major concerns that could cost NIC the accreditation it has held since the Truman administration.

One of the issues the commission identified was uncertainty about who was actually in charge of the community college. The board’s three-person majority suspended, but did not fire, President Nick Swayne in early December. They hired Greg South as interim president shortly after. Swayne and South had substantially identical job descriptions, and there was no provision for what would happen to South should Swayne return to office.

NIC’s response noted a court order reinstated Swayne March 3, and that four days later, “it was clear to the campus, the board, and the community that President Swayne was president of the college.”

“Though Dr. South remains on paid administrative leave, per his original contract arrangements with the board, Dr. South is not acting in any capacity as president and there is no leadership confusion on campus now that Dr. Swayne has returned,” the response said.

But Friday morning, hours after the response letter was submitted to NWCCU, Board of Trustees Chair Greg McKenzie and attorney Kelly Drew appeared in a Kootenai County courtroom to ask a judge to reverse the decision that put Swayne back in office.

Judge Cynthia Meyer had not issued a ruling as of midday Monday, but will likely hand down a written decision in the near future.

Referring to the Swayne suspension and the other seven concerns contained in the show-cause message, NIC’s response stated the board majority’s decisions were “disruptive” and that their “cascading effects…have caused uncertainty, confusion and anxiety both in the institution itself and in the community at large.”

Ameliorative steps listed in the response include:

  • Trustee training sessions that have been guided by the Association of Community College Trustees, the Idaho Attorney General’s office and the State Board of Education.
  • Contacting high schools, students, local tribes and businesses to discuss accreditation concerns and shore up their confidence in NIC.
  • Abandoning for the time being a proposal that would have moved NIC athletics to a different collegiate conference.
  • Reducing budget pressures by reining in some spending and negotiating for lower property insurance premiums.
  • Meeting with faculty and staff to reassure them and encourage them to stay on; additional opportunities for professional development; an intent to raise pay while keeping health coverage premiums flat.

“While we recognize that this response does not fully resolve each of the eight risks outlined in the NWCCU’s February 9 letter, there is evidence of progress,” NIC said.

The letter mentioned that the divided board of trustees has planned a day-long retreat April 15 aimed at “how to be a unified board singularly focused on the best interests of the college.” The board signed a statement pledging to work with Swayne to respond to multiple no-confidence votes rendered by faulty, staff and student government groups. And the board is reviewing a draft policy that would “provide consistency” in any future hiring of interim presidents.

The response said NIC is the only community college that serves Idaho’s five northernmost counties. The message said the school is fully committed to retaining its accreditation. It asks NWCCU for a lesser sanction, such as probation.

“We ask that the NWCCU allow us to step back from the show cause cliff where we find ourselves…so that we can work to resolve all risks expeditiously and return to good standing,” the response said. “This situation is uncharted territory for both of us, and we need your help.”

NWCCU plans to send a team to evaluate the college in person April 26 and 27. A vote on NIC’s fate is slated for June. If the commission decides to revoke NIC’s accreditation, the school will have a chance to appeal the decision in July.

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Read NIC's March 30 response in full:

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.