The Accreditation Saga at North Idaho College: Part I
An objective review of the past three years into the controversy at North Idaho College (NIC) shows that the college is not at risk of losing accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).
The NWCCU wants to work with NIC and has no desire to take away the college’s accreditation. There are multiple processes in place that allow a sanctioned institution a multi-year period to address the NWCCU’s concerns and work toward compliance with accreditation requirements and standards. NIC’s instructional programs are solid and in compliance. Instruction and program quality are not in question; this matter relates to the NIC Board of Trustees’ governance of the college.
North Idaho College – Accreditation FAQs page
By all accounts, the accreditation review is undergoing a standardized process that allows for a lengthy amount of time to address all concerns. There is no record of NWCCU, or any other accrediting institution, removing a college’s accreditation due to non-financial or non-program related issues. The community remains perplexed and confused on the issue partly due to how it has been portrayed by local media sources, as well as the actions of individuals who seem to be disseminating inaccurate information for political or personal gain.
This is the first in a series of articles to delve into areas of community concern regarding past and present circumstances at NIC:
the decision to cut ties with the former president.
the timeline of events surrounding the initial complaint made to NWCCU.
the process involved pertaining to accreditation.
the three state-appointed trustees and their actions.
the ongoing conflict between the current board majority and the president of the college.
Currently, the narrative presented by news sources is that the institution would be perfectly managed and the entire community well-served if only the trustees of the college would do one of two things – relinquish policy and oversight to the administration or change their political ideals to line up with progressive views of higher education.
This is how the college functioned for much of the past two decades. It appears elected trustees did little more than acquiesce to administrative wants, failed to hold administrators accountable for errors that resulted in declining enrollment and damaged property, and turned a blind eye to ideological choices. Those ideologically driven choices, like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), affected aspects of the educational programs and culture at the college.
Part I: Circumstances that led to the state asserting control over North Idaho College.
In November 2020, the voters re-elected Todd Banducci, a now-retired Major of the United States Air Force, who ran unopposed and was outspoken against coronavirus mitigation protocols at the college. At the same time they elected Greg McKenzie and Michael Barnes, both of whom campaigned on medical freedom on campus and first amendment rights for students, over incumbent Joe Dunlap and retired school administrator Paul Sturm.
Throughout the Covid-19 ordeal in 2020, there were numerous allegations that the administration under former NIC President Rick MacLennan was violating the rights of students by mandating masks and pushing experimental mRNA injections. Further allegations were made that his administration and faculty were harassing non-complying students. The nursing program in particular was reported to have received the greatest abuse. There were reported threats of expulsion and other forms of coercion. Students, staff, and faculty have spoken privately about these abuses; however, due to fear of retaliation these individuals remain publicly silent.
In September 2020, prior to the November election which resulted in a conservative-leaning majority on the NIC board, supporters of Dunlap, Sturm, and MacLennan used the campaign trail to insinuate that electing candidates with conservative values would place NIC accreditation at-risk. The anti-conservative political activists included ten former NIC faculty members who collectively produced a letter in which they claimed partisan ideology had no place in a nonpartisan trustee election. Which begs the question – if governing educational institutions is supposed to be nonpartisan, why do those in education only want those who are favorable to progressive ideology on the governing body?
On November 18, 2020, the newly elected trustees were sworn in, joining Banducci, Ken Howard, and Christie Wood. Within four months, progressive activists made good on their willingness to place NIC’s accreditation in the spotlight when the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, of which Christie Wood is president, filed a complaint with NWCCU. The complaint ushered in the start of the college’s accreditation saga, and appears to be little more than a political strategy against ideological rivals.
From November 2020 to September 2021, the new board attempted to work with MacLennan to correct both short-term and long-standing problems, even though the administration continued to enforce its controversial coronavirus mitigation protocols, which the vast majority of North Idaho residents opposed. The Kootenai Journal spoke with several former NIC students who all agreed that the mask mandates under MacLennan’s administration were unpleasant and did not support a healthy learning environment. Students were not afforded the same exemptions and accommodations that were available to employees and trustees.
On August 26, 2021, over a year and a half after the start of the Covid-19 ordeal, the board majority rescinded MacLennan’s mask mandates without support from Wood or Howard. Banducci and McKenzie are on record expressing the importance of the board’s expedience, as they had heard from students who stated they would withdraw due to the mask mandate. In the meeting minutes, MacLennan is noted for his disappointment in the board’s action and commented that “if the mask mandate is rescinded, then the college has increased health risks for individuals that could result in death.” Later in the meeting, after voting against rescinding the mask mandate, against adopting a policy to address the issue, and against going into executive session to evaluate the president, Wood made a motion to renew MacLennan’s contract with a pay raise. Howard, who voted with Wood on all three matters, echoed the desire to renew MacLennan’s contract with a pay raise. The motion was tabled and the meeting adjourned.
After ten months of trying to govern the college with MacLennan’s leadership, the board majority decided to officially cut ties with the president, and they voted to end his employment without cause on September 22, 2021. MacLennan’s contract was severed without cause because neither Wood nor Howard would vote to go into executive session, the only venue in which an evaluation of the president can be conducted. Idaho §74-206 requires a two-thirds vote to go into executive session, which means a board composed of five members requires four votes to enter into an executive session. The majority of the board believed there was cause for termination; however, they were without the ability to terminate with cause since the evaluation process was impossible without an executive session. The inability to get four votes to go into executive session to complete the president’s evaluation left NIC without a way to defend itself when MacLennan chose to sue the college. Sources tell the Kootenai Journal that the college’s insurance company believed MacLennan’s lawsuit was frivolous, but it was cheaper for them to pay him than engage in litigation.
An acting interim president was needed while the process to find a permanent acting president was undertaken. In October 2021, the board majority selected Dr. Michael Sebaaly from a pool of ten applicants, despite objections from Wood and Howard. As a respected member of the NIC community, Sebaaly was well known on campus and met all the requirements which included a master’s degree, minimum of five years in higher education administration, and senior level experience in leadership at a community college. It is notable that Sebaaly’s doctorate is in educational leadership, which includes board governance, thus making him an attractive choice given the complexities on the board and the NWCCU review.
Soon after this decision there was pressure applied to one of the new trustees to resign based on claims that he no longer lived in the zone he was elected to represent. The campaign to force Barnes’ resignation appears to have been completely disingenuous as it was public knowledge that Howard maintained a home in another state.
To avoid incurring legal fees associated with a civil lawsuit, Barnes chose to resign in January 2022, while Howard, a lawyer well-known for his work alongside Southern Poverty Law Center, remained. Now the board was obligated to appoint an eligible member of the public to fill the seat.
Due to the ideological divide between the four remaining trustees, no consensus was reached to replace Barnes. Wood and Howard would not agree to appoint any member of the public who aligned with conservative values, while Banducci and McKenzie would not cave to the pressure to appoint someone who aligned with progressive ideology. Records show Wood and Howard would only agree to accept the application of Pete Broschet, while Banducci and McKenzie were favorable to multiple applicants.
The board was in a stalemate, leaving the conservative electorate who had made their voices heard at the polls frustrated, and the community at large perplexed. The board could have continued to conduct other pertinent and vital college business as they navigated the trustee replacement process, including the hiring of a new president, but the sudden and unexpected resignations of both Wood and Howard in April of 2022 left the board without a quorum, thus halting any governing action by the board.
Here is where the crux of the issues materialized. Idaho §33-2106 allows the Idaho State Board of Education (SBOE) to fill empty seats by appointment in situations where a quorum is needed. The language of the statute is ambiguous as to whether the SBOE is granted authority to appoint up to the presence of the quorum (i.e. one trustee seat), or if they could appoint to fill all empty board seats (i.e. three trustee seats). The SBOE interpreted the statute language to grant them the most expansive powers, and on May 6, 2022, they proceeded to fill all three empty trustee seats by appointing David Wold, John Goedde, and Pete Broschet.
This action by the SBOE removed the will of the people, and replaced it with the will of the state. The appointed majority now had the power to make governing decisions in direct conflict with the desires of the electorate via their elected trustees. Public record requests show that Goedde, one of the appointed trustees, had been politicking behind the scenes since December 2021. In one correspondence, Goedde sent a letter to the SBOE dated March 22, 2022, in which he requested the board “direct [executive director] Matt Freeman to set the process and timeline for trustee replacement in the most expeditious manner.” This letter was drafted and sent to the SBOE before the announcement of Wood’s and Howard’s resignations, raising concerns of a coordinated, back-channel effort to undermine NIC’s independent governance by duly elected trustees.
These back-channel communications, which occurred prior to a loss of quorum on the NIC board, were well-known to SBOE members, interim president Sebaaly, NIC’s general counsel Marc Lyons, and other NIC officials. Additionally, records show there were emails from officials with Idaho Business in Education (IBE), a private entity, which lobbied the SBOE on behalf of several individuals hoping to be appointed to the NIC board. Furthermore, former NIC trustee Judy Meyer, an IBE board member, also communicated directly with at least one SBOE member via unofficial channels. Records show Meyer called SBOE board member Bill Gilbert and used her husband’s private and business emails in correspondence with Gilbert’s non-SBOE email. During the final interviews, just before the appointment of Wold, Goedde, and Broschet, Governor Brad Little made a public appearance in Coeur d’Alene on May 5, 2022, to promote his administration’s work in water quality. At that time, there were unconfirmed reports of a private meeting between the governor and SBOE officials.
Despite the appearance of corrupt political maneuverings, the public has not been given a transparent and comprehensive understanding of the situation that led to the state taking control of what is intended to be an independently governed community college.
Part II of this series will outline the actions taken by the appointed board majority during their six-month tenure, along with a look into the timeline of the college’s accreditation saga and the processes involved.