Leaders in higher education appointed to investigate North Idaho College’s eligibility to stay an accredited institution have found the college noncompliant with several standards needed to maintain accreditation, placing the college’s status in further jeopardy.
The panel was assigned by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities around December as part of an investigation into two complaints centered on the actions and conduct of the Coeur d’Alene community college’s board of trustees – primarily, the board’s majority led by Chair Todd Banducci.
The accusations against the board include failing to address allegations of threatening and unprofessional behavior exhibited by Banducci toward employees, trustees and former President Rick MacLennan; amending college policy without following proper procedures; and intentionally lowering the qualifications required of an interim president to hire head wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly to replace MacLennan, who was fired in September without cause.
The panel’s final report, dated Wednesday, recommends the commission place the college on probation upon finding the college is noncompliant with several commission requirements and standards for accreditation.
“The Panel finds that NIC generally has an appropriate set of policies in place, but faculty, staff and students do not have confidence that these policies are being respected or practiced,” the panel wrote. “The Panel observed a widespread perception that issues of current and future instability lie with disruptive actions taken by the NIC Board of Trustees, which threaten the viability of an important community educational institution.”
NIC has maintained regional accreditation through the NWCCU since 1950.
Probation would see the commission create a compliance schedule for NIC to follow to restore full accreditation, according to the report. Should this occur, and NIC doesn’t make progress according to the schedule, then the college would have to show cause to maintain accreditation.
Probation was just one of several recommendations made by the panel in response to the accreditation complaints.
Whether those come to bear will be decided by NWCCU’s executive committee, which will meet virtually soon to deliberate and potentially take action on the situation. A date has not been set.
The college has until March 12 to respond in writing to the panel report.
NIC officials will then be invited to attend a question-and-answer session with NWCCU commissioners, according to the panel report. The commissioners will then deliberate and vote on recommendations and action.
The college will be formally informed of any actions taken within 10 days of the appearance.
“We’ve been through a turbulent time and reading the peer panel report will likely stir emotions for you. It did for me,” Sebaaly said in a statement on the college’s website. “Great work is happening daily at our college. Keep working hard for our students. We will get through this together.”
NIC’s five-member board of trustees is down one member after former Trustee Michael Barnes resigned in January amid concerns that he was ineligible to serve on the board due to his residency.
The remaining members – Banducci, Greg McKenzie, Christie Wood and Ken Howard – are scheduled to meet Tuesday to continue the process of searching for a new trustee.
Howard, who noted he agrees with the report’s findings, said replacing Barnes will be a test of whether the board can function without deadlock.
“To say we have to correct it means, quite frankly, that the people who put us on this trajectory have to change. Quite frankly, I don’t see that happening,” he said. “I’m worried, but I’m going to work as hard as I can to see that this trajectory is changed and we get back into a point where the public has confidence in us and students have confidence in NIC.”
NIC leaders have reiterated during the commission’s investigation that, as long as the college remains accredited, the process has no bearing on a student’s ability to transfer their credits to another school.
Locally, Coeur d’Alene Public Schools has 354 students taking one or more dual-enrolled class at NIC, either on the campus or at the high schools. Coeur d’Alene students have earned 30,130 credits from NIC in the past five years, according to the district.
NIC is the top destination for graduates out of Coeur d’Alene Public Schools, according to district spokesperson Scott Maben. As of August , 22% of the college’s enrollment was composed of graduates from Coeur d’Alene Public Schools.
“I’ve got two grandchildren that were going to go into the dual-credit program this year, and they’re questioning me about whether they should do it,” Howard said. “I mean, it’s demoralizing, as a trustee, to have my own grandchildren wondering whether or not they should go through the dual-credit program.”
The complaints that started the commission investigation were filed last year by human rights groups in four counties, including the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. Wood, president of the Kootenai County task force, has said she has recused herself from the complaint due to a conflict of interest.
In light of the report, Wood is again calling for Banducci to resign.
She said in a statement that his continued involvement in any capacity “will make any repair to the damaged relationships between the board and the college community all but impossible.”
“It is time for Trustees to fully cooperate and look to the NWCCU and the Idaho State Board of Education for help and guidance to ensure we are in compliance with all educational standards,” she said in the statement. “Anything less as indicated by the NWCCU panel report puts the college at risk in moving from a probationary status to an actual loss of accreditation.”
Banducci and McKenzie did not return requests for comment.
Sebaaly declined to comment on the findings of the report.
The panel convened virtually in January to interview college leaders and attend forums with staff and students.
In its final report, which the college posted online Thursday, the panel commended NIC faculty, staff and administrators for their commitment to student success “despite great disruption created by the Board of Trustees.”
The report describes a culture of fear and uncertainty at NIC among faculty and staff largely created by the board’s “intrusions into operational decisions,” failure to follow policies and the appointment of Sebaaly, who is perceived as inexperienced and “has not yet garnered the respect of the campus.”
Contributing to the uncertainty, the panel noted, were the departures of Vice President of Instruction Lita Burns, Vice President for Student Services Graydon Stanley, Vice President for Finance and Business Affairs Chris Martin and Christy Doyle, dean of instruction, workforce education. All four left in January, with at least two motivated by their feelings toward the board of trustees.
Concerns also stem from the impact the board of trustees has had on the college’s finances, according to the report.
The North Idaho College Foundation has lost approximately $4.1 million in legacy gifts and an estimated $343,000 in major gifts, with another $36,000 of annual donations in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Moody’s – a leading credit rating agency – downgraded the college’s financial sustainability outlook in December from stable to negative, specifically citing board dysfunction.
The commission panel found NIC in violation of requirements and standards that fall under the following categories:
• Governance Structure, which outlines expectations regarding the makeup and responsibilities of a school’s governing board, particularly in relation to the board’s relationship with the institution’s chief executive officer/president.
• Academic Freedom, which calls for accredited institutions to protect constituents from “inappropriate internal and external influences, pressures, and harassment.”
• Institutional Integrity and Ethical Standards in Governance, Management, and Operations.
The panel’s concerns included how the roles of trustees relative to day-to-day college operations are not clearly defined, while “misgivings” in the process used to select Sebaaly as interim president have reduced his ability to lead.
The saga has seen several votes of no confidence lodged by the college’s Faculty and Staff assemblies against the board in the past year – with, the panel noted, seemingly no effect.
Panelists also found that mistrust was deepened across campus with Sebaaly’s selection of Kassie Silvas, a former NIC dean, as interim provost without much input from the campus community.
“The comments made during interviews and forums revealed that it is broadly felt that the Interim President was selected to provide certain members of the Board of Trustees influence in the objectives and operations of the institution,” the report reads. “This has left campus faculty, staff, administrators, and students with feelings of job insecurity and health risks during a time of increasing infections of COVID-19.”
The report singled out Banducci, citing how he once emailed a student that he’s “battling the NIC ‘deep state’ ” and has involved himself in campus operations, such as the selection of non-CEO administrators.
The board majority of Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes moved August to rescind a COVID-19 campuswide mask mandate put in place by MacLennan just four days after it took effect.
That same night, in a process that apparently proceeded without following college procedures for adopting policy change, the majority then amended college policy to make the board the final authority on preventative measures for communicable diseases, effectively stripping the college president of that power.
Banducci’s political statements have had a “chilling” effect on faculty independence and diverse thought across campus, according to the report.
“We heard that some faculty have added disclaimers to their syllabi, or changed their course content to protect against retaliation, and some fear for their job or tenure advancement,” the panel wrote.
“Faculty cite pressures coming from the Chair of the Board regarding COVID protocols, course contents, and grade disputes. Staff cite pressures based on religious differences or political affiliation.
“Although an Academic Freedom policy is in place, many in the campus community feel that it offers little protection in the current climate.”
Finally, the panel cited ethical violations by the board in eliminating public comment from several Board of Trustees meetings (it has since been reinstated, however), failing to implement previously agreed-upon changes with board conduct and making hiring/firing decisions without stakeholder input and transparent criteria.
While the panel found NIC within compliance of certain standards related to financial accountability, panelists noted a need for improvement in those areas.
The panel specifically cited how McKenzie, who serves as liaison between the board of trustees and the NIC Foundation, attempted to place himself on the foundation’s executive board. He was unsuccessful, the report concluded.
“Board of Trustees intrusions into operations of the NIC Foundation are evident,” the panel wrote.