A local legislator is pursuing a merger that would give control of North Idaho College to the University of Idaho.
Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden, said UI management of Coeur d’Alene’s community college would help attract big business and lower property taxes collected to support NIC.
“All I’m saying is: Here’s a concept of NIC merging with UI. What are the ups and downs of that?” Crow said.
But Crow’s attempt to start discussions of a merger between the two vastly different schools triggered a firestorm of opposition from NIC students, faculty members and administrators on Tuesday. Students and staff were notified of Crow’s idea in a campuswide memo from interim President Ronald Bell.
“This is the Grinch coming our way,” said Virginia Johnson, division chair of fine arts, foreign language, English, humanities and communication. “Merry Christmas. You are no longer needed.”
UI officials, meanwhile, say they are being unwittingly sucked into a political debate that Coeur d’Alene should be solving locally.
Crow requested meetings with UI President Bob Hoover and other top officials last month. He asked for specific examples and suggestions about how a merger could take place.
“It isn’t being called a merger by us,” said Hoover, who stressed that the Moscow-based university is pursuing collaborative efforts with NIC to provide upper division and graduate studies.
“But when a legislator asks you to meet with him and give him examples of things, you try to do that.”
Hoover said he was surprised and not prepared for the merger question when Crow asked it six weeks ago. It surfaced again at a St. Maries Chamber of Commerce meeting a few weeks later.
“There’s a lot of controversy over higher education up there and we find ourselves continually drawn into it,” Hoover said. “That’s an issue that the community up there is going to have to sort out.”
Crow told NIC’s Dean of College Relations, Steve Schenk, and trustee Bill Nixon that members of the community were pressuring him to suspend a presidential search to accomplish the merger this year, Schenk said. A search is under way for someone to replace Robert Bennett, who was forced to resign last year. Several NIC faculty and administrators hinted that lingering resentment over Bennett’s departure is one of the driving forces behind merger discussions.
But Crow denies that, and clarified his position Tuesday by stressing that he had no legislative proposal nor plans for a merger initiative this session.
“But I don’t think we should drop these discussions of a merger,” Crow said.
A merger would take more than $5 million off the property tax rolls in Kootenai County. That money now supports NIC. Though the UI offers several undergraduate degrees in Coeur d’Alene, an even stronger UI presence in Coeur d’Alene would help attract new businesses, Crow added.
“It’s arguable that there are several large, well-paying clean industries that we could have landed here with four-year programs available,” he said.
But faculty fear a merger would eliminate some of NIC’s best attributes: low tuition, small class sizes, flexibility and professors who can teach full-time because they aren’t burdened by research.
And it is students who lose the most in that scenario, Johnson said.
“I don’t think the property tax problems necessarily are solved by NIC having to become an arm of the University of Idaho. That doesn’t seem like the logical cause and effect. No administrative bulk would be cut, we would have even more layers of command to go through to make things happen.”
The role of all community colleges in Idaho is currently being reexamined by the Board of Education. The “70 percent committee” is studying how to serve the 70 percent of Idahoans whose educational needs don’t require a four-year-degree. A community college system is among the options being considered to overhaul governance and financing of the state’s two-year schools.
It peeves faculty that while the state is looking at ways to bolster community colleges, a local legislator appears poised to dismantle one.
“I’ve heard people saying conservatives are supposed to be so big on local control why is it that people here want to give it away to the state?” said Johnson. “That seems ironic and most here are appalled by the thought.”
State Board of Education President Judith Meyer said she believes NIC, UI and Lewis-Clark State College are successfully cutting duplication and better coordinating their North Idaho programs.
Consolidating administrations might make sense at first glance, Meyer said. But such moves can have deeper implications, she said, recalling the divisive split between UI and Boise State University over control of three engineering programs. “It’s a lot more complicated and the ripples go a lot further than you realize,” she said.
But Meyer stopped short of taking a firm position on the merger idea.
“I can’t say I support either direction. I support the need to look and explore and be creative with what’s right in North Idaho. We have to juggle limited resources.”
She pointed out that UI has not expressed independent interest in a merger. “They are not interesting in coming up here and gobbling up anybody. They are waiting to hear how they can help.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Meeting A public meeting on the NIC-UI merger proposal is scheduled today from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in NIC’s Sherman Conference Room in the administrative building.