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‘We have to get that fixed’: North Idaho College’s new president eager to address enrollment decline, accreditation issues

North Idaho College President Nick Swayne is photographed Thursday on campus in Coeur d’Alene.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
North Idaho College President Nick Swayne is photographed Thursday on campus in Coeur d’Alene. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

“Oh, good luck.”

Nick Swayne said he was offered the remark from a Starbucks worker at the Fred Meyer in Coeur d’Alene. The worker, noticing the North Idaho College hat Swayne wore that Saturday, had first asked whether he worked there.

“I’m the president,” Swayne replied, sheepishly.

Swayne, 61, said the worker explained how he took a biology class a year ago but never went back for any other courses because of issues involving North Idaho College’s accreditation.

NIC’s accreditation status is under scrutiny by the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities amid complaints from human rights groups over the college’s Board of Trustees. Issued a warning to resolve those issues by next spring, NIC was found out of compliance with accreditation standards concerning governance, governing board and institutional integrity.

“If that’s the data point of the guy at the Starbucks, if that’s his opinion,” Swayne said, “my guess is it’s fairly prevalent.”

From addressing the accreditation issues to reversing NIC’s declining enrollment in the face of downward trends at community colleges nationwide, Swayne knows he has work to do as the school’s 11th president.

The Board of Trustees last month finalized a three-year contract through June 2025 for Swayne that pays $230,000 annually.

He replaces Rick MacLennan, who was fired without cause by the Board of Trustees in September. NIC head wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly, who had served as interim president since November, has returned to his previous position, NIC spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said.

A 26-year Army veteran, Swayne comes into the job having most recently worked at James Madison University as executive director of 4-Virginia, a partnership of statewide universities focused on collaboration through research, shared courses and improved access to college degrees. As part of 4-Virginia, Swayne also ran the James Madison University X-Labs program.

The North Idaho College job marks an Idaho homecoming for Swayne, who as a child moved around Moscow, Lewiston and Orofino growing up, he said.

Swayne graduated from Moscow High School in 1979 and obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho four years later. He eventually earned a master’s degree in public administration from Northeastern University and a doctorate in postsecondary strategic leadership from James Madison University.

While at the University of Idaho, Swayne was in the university’s ROTC program and served with the National Guard. He served 26 years in the Army as an artillery officer, traveling worldwide to places like Germany, Iraq and Bosnia.

Swayne said he wasn’t too familiar with North Idaho College during his college days. The only times he’d visited the campus were brief stops with one of his friends who was studying toward becoming an electrical technician at the college.

“I’d say at the time, North Idaho College had a level of mystique because it wasn’t easy to get here,” Swayne said. “(U.S. Route 95) was not nearly as good as it is now and it took a long time to get here.”

Swayne’s last military assignment was to run the ROTC program at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, he said. He was later hired by the university to manage the 4-Virginia initiative, through which JMU X-Labs was funded by the state.

Charged by the state to innovate higher education, Swayne said the initiative developed courses with students and faculty from different majors to work on complex problems, Swayne said, such as homelessness or automating vehicles.

Swayne said his friend’s path toward becoming an electrical engineer – by first studying electronics at North Idaho College before transferring to the University of Idaho – contributed to how he developed the X-Labs program in prioritizing a mix of practical and theoretical learning.

Ultimately, however, Swayne said he felt he had taken that work as far as he could.

“The challenge is with four-year institutions in particular, they have a mission, and their mission is to get people through and go onto grad school or go into the workforce. They have a curriculum to follow that aligns with those roles,” he said. “Problem-solving is not part of that mission.”

Swayne was also a faculty mentor in Stanford’s Innovation Fellows program and a founder of the Faculty Innovation Fellows program. He recalls going through an exercise with his Stanford colleagues, during which they identified what they needed to do next to progress their careers.

Swayne said his vision for innovating higher education involves developing workforce-ready students who understand teamwork, their content area and “how to be productive and add value on Day One.”

“They said, ‘Nick, you need to be a university president,’ ” he said. “I don’t want to be so bold as to say that other universities don’t think about that, but that’s not their intent. That’s not the mission of most four-year institutions. If you want to do that, I just felt like I had to go somewhere else to make that happen.”

‘You always hope for the best’

Swayne almost didn’t apply for the North Idaho College job.

He first heard about the position around January from a recruiter he’d worked with in the past. Swayne didn’t bother with it, he said, because he “had a lot going on,” with not much time for a college president application.

Swayne said he wasn’t in any way reluctant about applying based on what he read in the news about North Idaho College’s turmoil.

“I was in the Army,” Swayne said. “Folks with big personalities, you bump into those folks all of the time and you kind of learn to – I don’t want to say deal with them, but it’s not unique. I think it may be unique to a university board, but you bump into them and you’ve got to learn to work with them. That didn’t dissuade me.”

He applied around a month later when the recruiter came calling again.

“What are my odds of actually becoming a finalist?” Swayne thought at the time. “Apparently, better than I thought.”

The makeup of the Board of Trustees that picked Swayne is much different than the one that ousted MacLennan in September.

In January, trustee Michael Barnes resigned amid concerns with whether he was eligible to serve on the board based on his residency status, leaving four members. The board was then deadlocked in picking his replacement member until May when two trustees, Christie Wood and Ken Howard, resigned.

Their moves left the Board of Trustees without a quorum, prompting the Idaho State Board of Education to step in and select three new members.

The state selected Pete Broschet, former state Sen. John Goedde and Dr. David Wold, who was selected as chair when the board reorganized in May during the new group’s first meeting.

The state’s involvement was contested by former Chair Todd Banducci and former Vice Chair Greg McKenzie, who were part of the majority that ousted MacLennan. The firing took place after months of public sparring between MacLennan and the former board majority, including over efforts by MacLennan to institute a campus-wide COVID-19 mask mandate.

Asked whether he would support a mask or vaccine mandate if COVID-19 were to return to prevalence, Swayne said he’d do so only if mandated by the governor.

“As a leader, never give an order that you know people are going to disobey,” said Swayne, who is vaccinated. “In this community, I can help educate. I can help provide information. I can provide free masks. I can provide free vaccines and vaccine clinics to cover all of that stuff, but if I make a mask mandate, not only will they not do it, but they’ll revolt. I’m not stupid.

“I think masks, if done properly, are effective, and I can explain that, but I’m not going to mandate it.”

Banducci, a central figure in the accreditation complaints as the former Board of Trustees chair, walked out of Swayne’s interview before it even began. He and McKenzie voted against hiring Swayne.

“You always hope for the best, but I wouldn’t say it was unexpected,” Swayne said about Banducci walking out of the interview. “I kind of expected that there would be some sort of unexpected activity, so I tried to anticipate that sort of thing.”

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

Not only was the board looking for an experienced leader with innovative ideas to move the college forward, but trustees also sought someone who could navigate those big personalities, Goedde said.

“He has a strong personality with military experience. Because of that, he has experience with situations that arise out of conflict,” he said. “I think he’s prepared to face that.”

‘This is the X-Labs model’

On Thursday, Swayne’s wife, Nicky, was still in Virginia packing at the house the Swayne family had called home for the past 21 years.

While Aug. 1 was officially Day One in Swayne’s presidency, Swayne said he has been invited to sit in on virtual senior leadership meetings and remote meetups with local mayors and superintendents since his selection by the board in late June.

Broadly, Swayne said his focus revolves around students, faculty, staff and the community.

“That spreads out into a whole bunch of different priorities,” he said. “Enrollment is something we’re working on. Our accreditation is something we’re working on. I think some of those are intertwined. We’ve got a couple of senior leaders that left that need to be replaced.”

Community college enrollment is down across the country. But while that decline in many cases is tied with population decreases, Swayne said that’s not the case in Kootenai County, which has grown in the past decade, according to census data.

As with other higher education institutions, Swayne said North Idaho College is challenged by the reality that prospective students can get a decent salary without a postsecondary degree.

“At some point, the economy – there won’t be quite as many ‘help wanted’ signs,” he said. “And at some point, the fact that you don’t have a degree, that you don’t have a certificate, you don’t have an official training, it will start to impact you, and I think we’ll see things come around a bit for all community colleges.”

North Idaho College also has areas in need of improvement, Swayne said.

He said the college has to ensure the curriculum and the modes of delivering courses align with what’s desired by students, what’s needed to transfer into area four-year universities and the skills sought in area industries. North Idaho College could also stand to streamline certain processes to make the enrollment process easier, he said.

“It’s not just North Idaho College,” Swayne said. “Two-year institutions across the country have been complacent and kind of lost focus on their audience. They have not kept pace with the change in demographic of students that are showing up, so they’re still treating them like little four-years when they’re not that, so we’re going to change that. We’re going to really chase that down.”

In his meetings with staff to date, Swayne has identified processes contributing to declining enrollment that have not been addressed over several years.

He’s told college staff he’s met with “they’ve got until December to fix that stuff,” Swayne said.

“I’m just telling people, ‘Fix it,’ ” Swayne said. “I’m not asking for perfect. Oftentimes, universities and colleges spend two years in an elaborate planning cycle to come up with a perfect plan, but then you find out it’s not relevant anymore because the situation changed. We’re going to focus on getting a good solution that may not be perfect, and then adapting it intermittently.

“This is the X-Labs model,” he continued. “I don’t want people so tied up in coming up with a perfect solution that it takes us two years to solve and we lose another 6% or 7% in enrollments in each of those two years.”

Goedde, who said he’s talked with Swayne about some of these issues, agrees with the new president’s outlook.

“The enrollment process for dual-credit students at the University of Idaho is streamlined. The same process at North Idaho College can be frustrating for students,” he said.

“When faced with which institution to get your dual-credit from, I think a number of students are opting for U of I because it’s easier for them to sign up for the dual-credit courses there. That’s an easy fix, but that’s something that hasn’t been done to date.”

Swayne believes community perceptions of North Idaho College’s accreditation issues are affecting enrollment, as losing accreditation is often thought of as an academic failure. North Idaho College is still accredited, while the quality of the college’s academics has never come into question in the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities accreditation investigation.

Swayne went down the list of what he said is expected to get the college back on track:

• Hire a new president.

• Institute a Board of Trustees governance policy, which will be considered Aug. 22.

• Fill senior leadership vacancies; Swayne said he plans to hold a meeting in early September with key stakeholders to explore whether to use a provost model or multiple vice presidents so the college can hire accordingly.

“It affects our recruitment. It affects our enrollments. It affects the community’s attitudes toward us,” Swayne said. “We have to get that fixed.”

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