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News >  Higher education

‘Leadership is leadership’: Incoming North Idaho College president talks qualifications, priorities

Oct. 27, 2021 Updated Thu., Oct. 28, 2021 at 10:13 a.m.

Michael Sebaaly believes he is qualified to run North Idaho College.

The college wrestling coach was selected Monday by the Board of Trustees to lead NIC as the college conducts a national search for a full-time replacement for Rick MacLennan, who was fired by the board in September.

With the position, Sebaaly will make a $180,000 salary prorated over the term of his presidency. He currently makes $53,931, according to the college, including $900 a credit, per semester, for teaching classes as a physical education faculty member.

Sebaaly will take over for Acting President Lita Burns no later than Nov. 10, with the college planning to choose an interim wrestling coach to run the team.

“A great leader knows to rely on their team,” he said Wednesday, “and I have great faith in the senior leadership team and their support and what we can do to keep NIC relevant and provide opportunities and serve our communities.”

The qualifications of the interim president position, which the board elected to fill internally, have been subject to controversy in recent weeks.

Board Chair Todd Banducci, Vice Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Michael Barnes have been accused by fellow Board of Trustee members Ken Howard and Christie Wood of watering down the job requirements to hire their preferred candidate. The board required applicants to have a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution, with levels of administrative experience relegated to preferences.

For his part, Sebaaly described his coaching position as something of “a small CEO.”

It’s a role, he said, that has given him experience with functions such as recruitment, retention, financial aid, fundraising, academic advising and support – all while being in the spotlight.

He also cited administrative internships he pursued while earning his doctorate in educational leadership at Southwestern College. The internships, he said, involved working with the college’s senior leadership – including the president.

“With coaching, there is a lot of administrative work that goes on. It is not just throwing out a ball,” Sebaaly said. “To me, it really comes down to knowing and working with the strengths of your team, and again, North Idaho College is in great shape. It’s going to remain relevant, and I look forward to working with the board and our students and our faculty and staff.”

None of the candidates for the position, including Sebaaly, was interviewed.

Sebaaly said Wednesday afternoon he had not yet met with the board, expecting that to take place during the Board of Trustees session later that evening as the board officially finalized his selection.

“Why I applied was I really believe in the work of North Idaho College and I believe what we do matters,” Sebaaly said, adding he believes in “serving the needs of students in our community and creating opportunities and access to education.”

Asked why he believes he was chosen, Sebaaly referenced his cover letter, in which he said he expressed that “leadership is leadership.”

“To me, it’s important that a community college continues to exist to provide access and opportunities for everyone,” he said.

Sebaaly took over as the college’s wrestling coach in 2019 to replace Pat Whitcomb, who was fired for unclear reasons based on the findings of an academics-integrity investigation. Whitcomb then sued the college, claiming he was fired due to “unlawful discrimination, reputation harm, retaliation and misconduct” after speaking out against the school.

“I didn’t come here under the greatest of circumstances either,” Sebaaly said, “but listening, trusting people, building and being authentic every day of who I am and what I care about. I plan on listening to the faculty and students and the staff and serving them, being here every day and winning the hearts and minds one at a time.”

Sebaaly declined to comment on what he thought of MacLennan’s leadership, citing “the current climate” at North Idaho College.

MacLennan, who publicly battled with the board majority in the months leading up to his firing, has filed a lawsuit against the college, Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes, claiming unlawful termination. A face mask mandate put in place by MacLennan to stem the spread of COVID-19 was rescinded by the board just days after it took effect.

Sebaaly, who wouldn’t say whether he is vaccinated against COVID-19, also declined to say whether he plans to encourage face masks or vaccinations as president.

“I don’t feel comfortable answering that question right now as those are highly personal opinions,” he said when asked about encouraging face masks and vaccines, “and I’m also not looking to undermine the great work that Dr. Lita Burns is doing right now as acting president.”

His priorities, he said, include creating stability at the college.

“We are here to educate in workforce training,” Sebaaly said. “We are here to educate so that kids can transfer on to four-year institutions. And we’re going to make sure that we are there for our students – that service is at the heart of everything we do.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Michael Sebaaly received his doctorate from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas.

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