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North Idaho College faculty, staff seek help to ensure president search ‘is legitimate,’ but agency declines

Aerial view of North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.  (Courtesy NIC)

The agency that accredits North Idaho College said it’s staying out of the school’s search for a full-time president, though some faculty and staff sent a letter asking for help .

North Idaho College has been accredited by the NWCCU since 1950. The commission, however, is investigating whether the college is still eligible for accreditation status after a complaint from regional human rights task forces concerning the conduct of the college’s Board of Trustees.

The accreditation agency was sent a letter late last month from a group of North Idaho College faculty and staff asking the NWCCU for help with the search to replace Rick MacLennan, who was ousted by the college Board of Trustees without cause in September.

NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswamy said the letter will be part of the materials used in the commission’s analysis of the complaint against North Idaho College.

“It’s not in our purview to go in and say ‘thou shalt’ about searches,” he said. “The institution has its own bylaws and procedures when it comes to hiring and firing administrators, faculty, staff and so on. That’s articulated by them. We don’t say how people can be fired or hired, and also we don’t specify what the qualifications ought to be and what the process ought to be because each institution is very different.”

The faculty and staff letter to the NWCCU is not a complaint, the authors noted. Rather, it is a request for assistance “in order to support a transparent search process based on best practice” as aligned with the commission’s accreditation eligibility requirements, according to the letter.

“In a recent media report, after the selection of the Interim President, a board member stated, ‘we’re looking for help,’ ” the authors wrote. “Like many in the college’s constituent groups and the larger community, we, too, are looking for help to ensure the search for the permanent President is legitimate and includes the authentically considered feedback of the college and the community it serves.”

The authors cited the process spearheaded by the board of trustees majority of Chair Todd Banducci, Vice Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Michael Barnes in the search for an interim president. Wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly was chosen after the board reviewed applications, but did not conduct interviews for a role in which the only requirement was a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution.

The Oct. 25 letter is signed by Lloyd Duman, interim associate dean of instruction; Jonathan Gardunia, program director of the Idaho Consortium for Physical Therapist Assistant Education; Chris Martin, vice president for finance and business affairs; Molly Michaud, chair of English and humanities; and Graydon Stanley, vice president of student services.

All of the authors were also applicants for the interim president’s position. Several said last month they applied to help bring stability to a college that’s been embroiled in controversy over the last year or so, as partially highlighted by the tenuous relationship between MacLennan and majority members on the board of trustees.

Wednesday was Sebaaly’s first day as interim president, with assistant coach Chase Clasen tabbed as interim head coach for the wrestling team. Lita Burns, who served as acting president during the transition, has returned to her previous role as vice president for instruction.

Beyond the presidential search, taking steps to maintain North Idaho College’s accreditation figures to occupy at least part of Sebaaly’s term as interim president.

The college has to submit an ad hoc report to the NWCCU by Aug. 1, 2022, showing the actions taken by administrators and trustees to meet NWCCU criteria concerning the makeup, function, authority and responsibility of the college’s governing board.

During the most recent board of trustees meeting last month, Burns distributed an action plan to trustees outlining steps designed to satisfy the NWCCU and avoid sanctions from the commission. Such steps include reinstating public comment at board of trustees meetings, demonstrating respect and consideration of recommendations made by the college president and addressing allegations of misconduct against Banducci.

Sebaaly was not immediately available for comment.

Revocation of an institution’s accreditation, if it were to occur, is an outcome based on “a very detailed process” that could take a few years, Ramaswamy said.

“Depending on the complexity and the severity of the complaint, certainly the (NWCCU) commissioners will be asked to vote on these things, particularly in the situation where you may have a warning, or a sanction or a show cause, etc.,” he said. “That’s getting close to what you could say is the nuclear option, ultimately, that an institution loses accreditation.”

Accreditation holds institutions accountable based on the standards of the NWCCU and the U.S. Department of Education, Ramaswamy said. The accredited status of an institution is often considered by universities when reviewing prospective employees, while students attending accredited institutions can access federal financial aid.

Ramaswamy said the commission is also reviewing a second complaint received from the same groups within the past few days. He declined to comment on the nature of the complaint.

“Any time an adverse action is taken by the commission, that is going to be looked at by the federal government,” he said. “We have to have very clear data, compilation of evidence and things like that to show it. It’s absolutely and positively not a one-and-done.”