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Shawn Vestal: Board ideologues imperil NIC’s academic mission

UPDATED: Wed., May 12, 2021

Banducci  (Courtesy of North Idaho College)
Banducci (Courtesy of North Idaho College)

If anyone’s wondering about the real-world implications of the movement in Idaho to censor educators, cut school funding as ideological punishment, and dictate a curriculum of pro-white, pro-conservative views, look no further than North Idaho College.

A far-right board chairman has deemed himself king of all things NIC – the school’s Ozymandias. He leads a new board majority of ideologues, elected on promises to “take back” control of the college and to oppose diversity programs and teaching at the school. He brags that he’s battling NIC’s “deep state,” and brazenly injects his politics into the performance of his duties – once insulting the college president’s wife for being a Clinton supporter and confronting a staffer for making a campaign donation to a political opponent.

He has meddled in a petty complaint by a conservative student who believes he should have gotten a better grade on his anti-abortion project – better than a low A. He complained to the college president that another student had pledged allegiance without saying “under God” – and told the president, “I expect this institution will work hard to make sure this never happens again.”

He has cursed and yelled at other board members. He told fellow board member Christie Wood that he was going to “kick (her) ass” and that his wife was going to “bitch-slap” her. The board issued a private censure for his behavior last April.

He has been aggressive and intimidating with people all over campus, according to several sources – including the college president – and he agreed to avoid contact with an employee he verbally and physically assaulted.

In sum, the tenure of NIC Board Chairman Todd Banducci has been a disaster for the college, its administration, its faculty, its staff and its students.

Now his actions have put the college’s accreditation, and possibly some of its federal funding, at risk.

The claims above come from a civil rights complaint filed with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the Department of Justice by four human rights task forces in the region – those representing Kootenai County Bonner Bounty, Boundary County and Spokane County.

“Our findings are based on the release of college emails obtained under public records requests, written statements from NIC board member Christie Wood, a letter to the board from NIC president Rick MacLennan, a resolution from the NIC Faculty Assembly and statements from campus employees showing a hostile climate that has included bullying, intimidation, threats toward employees’ job security, sexual harassment, and verbal/physical assault,” the complaint reads.

The complaint was filed in March, and the commission announced April 27 that it will conduct an investigation. It will be looking to see if NIC is meeting accreditation requirements on three criteria: that it does not discriminate; that it supports academic freedom; and that its governing board follows clearly delineated bounds of authority.

Banducci is serving his third four-year term on the board, and his first as board chairman. He and the current majority took over after last year’s elections, in which Republicans in Coeur d’Alene ran a campaign against diversity initiatives and education at the school – a sad irony for a college that was among the loudest, clearest voices against hatred when the Aryan Nations was a regular presence in the Lake City.

This movement to impose ideological control over education, similar to the current efforts to put right-thinking conservatives on a Coeur d’Alene library board, is part of a wholesale commitment among conservative politicians in Idaho to oppose diversity initiatives, multicultural thinking and any effort to teach about system racism or implicit bias. They’re doing their best to whitewash American history, deny the ongoing reality of racism in the national story and make the state’s classrooms comfortable for defensive white people.

Banducci’s time on the board – according to many complaints – has wedded that ideological bullying with crude, real-world bullying. He did not answer an email seeking comment for this column.

MacLennan, the college president, told the board in a letter in January about several instances of concern regarding Banducci, including “the verbal and physical assault of an NIC employee that has resulted in ongoing trauma.” The task forces obtained emails indicating Banducci had agreed to have no further contact with the employee.

“As the board knows,” MacLennan wrote, “Mr. Banducci’s aggressive and intimidating behavior against this and other college employees has been well-documented over the time he has been a college trustee.”

These are dire times for education and free speech in Idaho. Ideological extremists, led by the anti-education, libertarian, influence-peddling Idaho Freedom Foundation, have launched an explicit assault on the state’s schools from pre-K to graduate school – an attempt to replace history and knowledge with conservative propaganda enforced and approved by the government.

In doing so, they are trampling – or maybe Trumpling – on the Constitution, on truth and fairness, on academic freedom, and on the ability of Idaho’s students to get a decent education.

The people of Idaho have to fight back against this crazed political irresponsibility – just as they did by passing an initiative to expand Medicaid coverage for tens of thousands of Idahoans when legislators refused.

If they don’t, the bully board at NIC may be a sign of the times for education all over the state.

Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct that it was a staff member, not a student, involved in the assault settlement.

Contact the writer at shawnv@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5431.

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