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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘A crisis at the institution’: State officials urge North Idaho College to address accreditation issues amid new complaint, leadership exodus

North Idaho College trustees Todd Banducci, right, and Greg McKenzie supported the appointment of Head Wrestling Coach Mike Sebaaly as interim president on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.  (Greg Mason/The Spokesman-Review)

Investigators appointed by the agency that accredits North Idaho College will visit the college next month on the heels of another complaint concerning the conduct of NIC’s Board of Trustees.

In light of the ongoing accreditation concerns, the Idaho State Board of Education released a statement Monday urging the college to address these issues as soon as possible.

Filed last month by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and the human rights task forces of Spokane, Bonner and Boundary counties, the new complaint lists concerns with events that have transpired since their initial complaint with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in March.

In particular, the groups are accusing the NIC Board of Trustees of continued and additional violations of NWCCU accreditation eligibility requirements. They specifically called out the three-member board majority consisting of Chair Todd Banducci, Vice Chair Michael Barnes and Secretary-Treasurer Greg McKenzie.

North Idaho College has maintained accreditation through the NWCCU since 1950. Accreditation makes North Idaho College eligible for federal financial aid and allows more opportunities for a student’s credits to transfer to another institution.

In a letter to the college Wednesday, NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswamy said the commission has appointed a panel of regional higher education representatives for an in-person, on-site investigation.

Ramaswamy requested time next month for interviews with students, faculty, staff, administrators and trustees. The evaluator team will come to NIC for a full day of meetings the week of Jan. 17, according to the college.

“Our expectation is that this on-site review of the situation at NIC will serve to support the college’s continued compliance with NWCCU’s Eligibility Requirements, Standards for Accreditation and Policies and Procedures,” Ramaswamy wrote, “and, as such, ensure fulfillment of the college’s mission focused on the success of its students.”

An NWCCU investigation is already underway into the first complaint filed by the human rights groups. The complaint referenced allegations of threatening, aggressive and unprofessional behavior exhibited by Banducci toward employees, trustees and former President Rick MacLennan, who raised these issues in January – months before he was fired by the board without cause.

As part of the investigation into the initial complaint, the NWCCU requested NIC submit an ad hoc report to the commission by Aug. 1, 2022, to show how actions taken by administrators and trustees meet accreditation eligibility requirements.

Kurt Liebich, president of the state Board of Education, and board Executive Director Matt Freeman wrote in a letter to trustees that they believe action must be taken and resolved well before that deadline “for the sake of the College, students, and the community.”

“We urge you to complete the Accreditation Response Action Plan as developed by (NIC Vice President of Instruction) Dr. Lita Burns and posted on NIC’s website as soon as possible and in good faith,” they said.

In the letter, Liebich and Freeman said the complaints and an ensuing exodus of senior leaders at the institution – including three college vice presidents set to depart by the start of next year – “is extremely concerning.”

The letter listed the potential consequences with losing accreditation, including the devaluation of NIC degrees, the inability for NIC students to transfer their credits to other accredited institutions in Idaho, ineligibility for NIC students to apply for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship and a negative impact on North Idaho employers, many of which require prospective employees to have an educational background from an accredited institution.

State officials indicated the Board of Education plans to discuss NIC’s issues during the group’s next board meeting Dec. 15 in Boise.

“In short, action or inaction by the College’s Board of Trustees that places accreditation at risk would result in long-term injury to the very students you were elected to serve,” Liebich and Freeman wrote. “It would also significantly impair the College’s ability to recruit and retain students, faculty and staff. Indeed, the very viability of the College itself could hang in the balance.

“We respectfully request that you set aside parochial or partisan interests, and urgently focus on the best interests of students and the College before both are irreparably harmed,” the letter concluded.

In a statement Friday through the college, Banducci said he is asking his fellow trustees to set aside their differences and work together to support NIC interim president Michael Sebaaly when they meet with the NWCCU-appointed team in January.

“I’m confident Dr. Sebaaly and his leadership team will present the visiting team with an accurate picture that we’re listening to our community, giving them the learning experiences they want and taking care of North Idahoans,” Banducci said. “I shared at the last board meeting, and I will share again, this is a long-term process. Our accreditation is currently solid, students aren’t losing any ground, and their credits will transfer.

“When the board meets with representative from the commission, I’ll take their fact-finding mission with serious credence,” he added.

McKenzie and Barnes did not respond to a request for comment.

Trustee Ken Howard is “deeply troubled” by the current state of affairs created, he said, by Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes. He said change is needed – whether that’s in attitude or board membership.

“The public has to do that. These are elected offices, and they elected these three individuals,” Howard said. “I’m troubled by the fact that there is no fix that I or (Trustee) Christie Wood could do at this point in time. It’s got to be those three members that have to handle the change. I’m not confident at all that they will.”

Wood echoed Howard’s sentiments in a statement, saying “the continued violations of state and federal laws, failure to follow NIC policies, and complete disregard for college accreditation standards” by the majority “could have a dire effect on NIC’s ability to serve our community.”

“I implore the trustees to understand the incredibly serious implications, and quit behaving as if they are free to ignore all standards in order to achieve their own personal agendas,” she said.

‘Getting worse and worse’

In their response to the NWCCU in June, trustees agreed to start working through the issues raised by MacLennan while readdressing leadership roles.

Local human rights leaders alleged in the second complaint that not only has that not taken place, the board “has since demonstrated that it has no intention” of following college policies.

They cited how trustees moved in August to amend college policy and give the board final authority on preventative measures for communicable diseases, effectively stripping that authority from the college president.

At the time, MacLennan warned that the action was rushed, as changing college policy involves multiple readings and opportunities for public comment.

The groups also referenced the methods applied by the board in temporarily replacing MacLennan – who was fired in September – with Sebaaly, the college’s wrestling coach.

Requiring only a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution, the interim president job posting was much less stringent with requirements than those sought during the college’s presidential search in 2016, according to the complaint. Additionally, none of the 10 applicants were interviewed.

The complaint alleges that the standards used to hire Sebaaly were “deliberately diluted” and fall short of leadership standards required for NWCCU accreditation.

The human rights groups are imploring the NWCCU to act quicker. Tony Stewart, secretary for the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and a retired NIC political science professor, said the second complaint was essential for reasons including what’s taken place since March, the upcoming presidential search and on-campus morale issues.

“Our conclusion with the second complaint is that it was our foremost opinion that there would be a lot more serious damage taking place before next August,” Stewart said. “This has just been escalating and been getting worse and worse. It’s really a crisis at the institution.”

The complaint concluded with a postscript, noting how longtime donors to the North Idaho College Foundation are planning to discontinue their contributions in the near future due to the ongoing situation.

NIC Foundation President Steve Masterson verified the statement, saying the foundation has received multiple communications from donors “expressing concern related to the actions of the NIC Board of Trustees.”

He said the foundation stands to lose millions of dollars in current donations and potential legacy gifts toward programs and scholarships. Legacy gifts are made to the foundation after the death of the donor.

‘The tone of concern is real’

Whereas the NWCCU has requested an on-site visit in light of the second complaint, NIC was allowed initially to respond to the first only in writing, said Steve Kurtz, the college’s accreditation liaison officer.

Upon receiving the NWCCU letter, Sebaaly said he called a joint meeting of President’s Cabinet and the college’s Executive Accreditation Committee to start planning for a response. He also said he planned to speak with the Board of Trustees.

Using a response plan prepared by former acting president and current VP of instruction Burns, Sebaaly said the college administration and the board will continue working through the first NWCCU complaint with the understanding that the ad hoc report is due by August.

The interim president and other college leaders met Friday afternoon with Ramaswamy and Ron Larsen, an NWCCU institutional staff liaison, to discuss the logistics of the January site visit.

“These are serious allegations that NIC will not take lightly,” Sebaaly said in a message to the campus community Wednesday. “While our accreditation is solid today, we cannot take that for granted and as you will read in the NWCCU letter, the tone of concern is real.”

Part of the coming review concerns eligibility requirements and standards linked with NIC’s financial health and sustainability given a number of staff and faculty departures, withdrawal of foundation donations and, according to the NWCCU, declining student enrollments.

During the Oct. 27 Board of Trustees meeting, college officials reported that the total headcount for NIC’s fall term was 4,581, down 3.5% compared to where it was last October. That marks a declining trend since fall 2017 when the college’s total headcount was 5,391.

NIC’s numbers show spring 2022 enrollment is up 7% compared to this time last year, said NIC spokeswoman Laura Rumpler.

“Enrollment projections can grow or decline from week to week,” she said, “so the college remains committed to maintaining a close watch over resources and expenditures to ensure the college remains in a strong, sustainable fiscal position and welcomes discussion with the NWCCU visiting team on these issues in January.”

The NWCCU intervention follows a significant transition period for NIC. The college will have a number of vacant senior leadership positions to start 2022, with some departing officials citing the board’s actions among the reasons for their exits.

Burns, VP of instruction, will retire by early January, along with Vice President for Student Services Graydon Stanley and Dean of Instruction, Workforce Education Christy Doyle.

Meanwhile, Vice President for Finance and Business Affairs Chris Martin – who previously indicated he intended to leave by the end of this school year – announced Thursday his departure date has moved up. He will leave in mid-January to take the vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer position with Salt Lake Community College.

To help fill the void, Kassie Silvas, NIC’s former dean of Career, Technical and Workforce Education, will come out of retirement to serve as interim provost starting Monday. She was selected by Sebaaly for the role.

Stewart also took issue with how Silvas was selected without other applicants to the interim provost position.

“Nothing against that person,” he said, “but the whole process has broken down.”