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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Divided NIC leadership projects unity as accreditation deadline approaches

North Idaho College has until Friday to finish a report showing why it should remain accredited.

“We have one chance on the March 31 letter, one chance to get it right,” NIC president Nick Swayne said at a board meeting Wednesday night.

Swayne said the school is working on the report closely with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the accrediting body that issued a sanction of show cause in February over numerous governance concerns.

“You all might not see it yet, but the board is actually working very hard to work together, to work with me, to support the students, faculty and staff,” Swayne said.

Swayne, who was reinstated earlier this month after a judge’s ruling, is suing NIC for placing him on administrative leave without cause in December.

After reinstating Swayne, the board voted 3-1 to keep interim president Greg South on paid leave in good standing, with trustee Brad Corkill voting against and Tarie Zimmerman abstaining. Trustees Corkill and Zimmerman opposed placing Swayne on leave in December.

In the show cause sanction, the commission listed “uncertainty as to who is the Chief Executive Officer at North Idaho College” with two presidents being on payroll as an institutional and financial risk.

“What am I missing … Why are we still opposing Dr. Swayne coming back?” said Mike Gridley during public comment. Gridley, a former city attorney for Coeur d’Alene, is suing NIC for open meeting violations in December and alleges NIC lacked the authority to hire South.

NIC attorneys argued in their motion for reconsideration that Swayne’s employment agreement allowed the board to place him on leave.

NIC Board Chairman Greg McKenzie also argued that Swayne was placed on leave so that the board could investigate the legitimacy of his contract and the circumstances in which he was hired. McKenzie said Swayne was hired without an executive session where other candidates could have been discussed. He also said that a contract provision requiring a 4-1 supermajority to terminate Swayne is not in accordance with NIC policies.

Laura Rumpler, NIC’s communications and government relations officer, said in a court document that Swayne made her fearful of losing her job.

She said Swayne told cabinet members to “stop digging” and “tread lightly” because it angers him when people question him.

Rumpler also said Swayne told them to not communicate directly with McKenzie or NIC’s defense counsel, and to not create documents related to the litigation, because “creating documents that are discoverable is stupid if you are in the middle of litigation.”

“This puts me in an impossible position,” Rumpler said, “because Dr. Swayne is my direct supervisor, but I also have a duty to protect the best interests of NIC as an institution and tell the truth in regards to underlying facts in this lawsuit.”

Show cause report

At Wednesday’s meeting, Steve Kurtz, NIC’s accreditation liaison, updated the board on the progress of the show cause report, which must detail with evidence how the college meets each accreditation requirement and standard.

“We are learning as we go; the circumstances are really dire,” Kurtz said.

In addition to the report, the college is preparing a teach out plan, which includes their response in a worst-case scenario of losing accreditation.

“It is hard to predict exactly what will happen to NIC in the event of an adverse action, but the teach out plan right now only includes a list of currently enrolled students, their programs along with the number of credit hours and a list of alternative institutions where similar programs are offered.”

Kurtz said the best-case scenario would be a lower sanction such as a warning or probation.

After NIC submits the report, a team from the commission will conduct a campus visit April 26 to 27.

NWCCU commissioners will meet to evaluate NIC in June. The college will have an opportunity to appeal in July.

“Fundamentally, this is a wonderful institution,” Swayne said. “It is strong, it is financially sound, we have great faculty, so we are trying to balance the governance.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.