In a final official message to North Idaho College employees, ousted President Rick MacLennan said while there are likely “turbulent times” coming, he’s optimistic the college’s “best days still lie ahead.”
MacLennan’s final day was Thursday after he was fired without cause Wednesday night by the college Board of Trustees. MacLennan was hired in 2016.
MacLennan advocated for unity with his farewell message, saying that when the college community works together toward a common purpose, “we are unstoppable.”
“I don’t know if this is the last stop on the trail for me, but if it turns out to be so, I want you to know that serving this college and being on the NIC team with each and every one of you has been the highlight of my career,” MacLennan wrote in a message. “Your generosity, trust and patience have truly helped me become a better version of myself. Thank you.”
Unity has been scarce at North Idaho College over the past several months amid public conflict between MacLennan and the majority of the Board of Trustees led by Chair Todd Banducci.
Banducci has faced complaints from the president and others in the college community of aggressive, unprofessional and threatening behavior. The complaints have led to an investigation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities to determine whether the college is still eligible for regional accreditation.
The discord was especially prevalent last month when trustees revoked a campus mask mandate MacLennan put in place and installed the board as the final authority on preventative measures for communicable diseases, effectively taking that power away from the president.
The move to fire MacLennan on Wednesday was spearheaded by Banducci, Vice Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Michael Barnes. The board then appointed Vice President for Instruction Lita Burns as acting president.
The acting presidency is an agenda item for a special board meeting scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday.
The board may also initiate the presidential search process. Trustees debated Wednesday about a board-conducted search led by Banducci and board attorney Marc Lyons with support from the college administration.
As with other board sessions in the past several months, there is no public comment period scheduled for Friday’s meeting.
Burns, a Wyoming native, has worked in higher education for 30 years, according to North Idaho College. She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Wyoming, a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Colorado and a doctorate in leadership studies from Gonzaga University.
Burns moved to North Idaho in 2001 upon accepting the position of director of health professions and nursing, and was later promoted to a dean’s position. She took the job of vice president for instruction in 2012.
In his message Thursday, MacLennan said Burns “has my unequivocal support as acting president.”
“I hope you’ve noticed how difficult it is for me to hide my appreciation and admiration for Dr. Burns, her many talents and her passion for serving North Idaho College,” MacLennan wrote. “She is the right person for this next stage of your journey. I sincerely hope (know!) you will care for her and give her the same generosity, trust and patience you’ve given me.
“Thank you, again, for letting me become a part of your family,” he continued. “Please accept my best wishes for whatever your future holds for you.”
Both MacLennan and Burns declined to comment for this story.
Students, faculty, staff and others from the North Idaho College community gathered Thursday outside of Sherman Building to bid MacLennan farewell.
Emerging from the building to cheers, MacLennan addressed the crowd with some brief remarks before milling about to thank the dozens of attendees for their support.
Holding a sign that read, “When they go low, you go high,” Kim Sumners described the actions by the Board of Trustees as “embarrassing and disgraceful.”
“Their conduct is so unprofessional,” said Sumners, senior administrative assistant for TRIO Student Support Services. “It’s been a really somber day on campus for staff and faculty.”
Julie VanMiddlesworth, an environmental science instructor at North Idaho College, said the college’s faculty and staff are “united in their love and support” for MacLennan.
She cited a joint letter of support signed by the college’s faculty and staff assemblies. VanMiddlesworth said the faculty’s vote on the letter was unanimous, save for three abstentions, while the staff vote was overwhelmingly in favor.
“We, the people that were under him, think he did a stellar job,” VanMiddlesworth said, “and that should ultimately be how a person is judged.”
Moving forward, VanMiddlesworth said college employees are looking for trustees to do what’s best for the institution and the students, not to politicize their roles. She said she also hopes to see “shared governance.”
“But I don’t think we’ll get it,” she added, “because we didn’t get it for this. That’s for sure.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that MacLennan was North Idaho College’s longest-serving president. The longest-serving president is Barry Schuler, who served 18 years from 1968 to 1986.