Coeur d’Alene Press reporter Kaye Thornbrugh joins producer Ruth Brown this week to discuss the ongoing dispute between the board of trustees and the president at North Idaho College, and where the situation sits against the backdrop of NIC’s current accreditation review.
Read: The Ongoing Dispute at North Idaho College
Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports: I’m joined by reporter Kaye Thornbrugh of the Coeur d’Alene Press to talk about the latest and ongoing dispute happening at North Idaho College. Thanks for joining me, Kaye.
Kaye Thornbrugh, Coeur d’Alene Press: Thanks for having me.
IR: So, for those unfamiliar, this has been an ongoing dispute. Can we back up a little bit, and can you explain to me some of the issues between the board and the college president?
Thornbrugh: Sure. This issue can really be traced back to the hiring of Dr. Nick Swayne as North Idaho College’s president in August of 2022. At that time, there were disputes and disagreements between the then elected trustees, Todd Banducci and Greg McKenzie, and the three trustees who had been appointed by the State Board of Education when the board fell below quorum earlier in the year. There was a fair amount of dispute over who would be hired essentially as the permanent president. Those issues came to a head in December 2022 when the board majority at that time – comprised of Todd Banducci, Greg McKenzie, and a newly elected trustee named Mike Waggoner – voted to place Swayne on administrative leave for no specified reason, an indefinite administrative leave.
Swayne sued the college as a result, seeking reinstatement to his job. The primary argument in that case being that his employment contract with North Idaho College specifically did not empower the board to place him on administrative leave except under very specific circumstances, which had not been met. So, the two parties duked this out in court for several months, but ultimately Swayne won his lawsuit without having to go to trial back in May, at which point North Idaho College agreed that it would not fight the lawsuit any longer, and it seemed as though the matter was resolved. However, recently North Idaho College filed an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court over the judge’s ruling in Kootenai County regarding this case.
IR: The board has appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court. What do we know moving forward?
Thornbrugh: The matter is still pretty preliminary, in that all we have so far is the notice of appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court. We do have, based on the court filings, some insight into the preliminary issues that North Idaho College wants looked at on appeal. These include whether the relief that Swayne was afforded in this case – reinstatement to his job – was within the trial court’s authority; whether and to what extent the board of trustees can exercise powers that are not specifically included in that employment agreement; whether or not the judge in Kootenai County erred in considering certain types of evidence. Things of that nature.
IR: This has been an ongoing debacle, but I think the State Board of Education predominantly cares about the students. When you look at this, is there an impact to the students or to the State Board of Education?
Thornbrugh: The State Board of Education has so far definitely been making an effort to be supportive to North Idaho College as an institution as it is going through this very dynamic and frequently changing accreditation debacle, if we could call it that. However, the state board has been fairly hands off of the matter and really taken a stance that this is a local control issue. What I have observed, and the feedback that I am getting from the community here in Kootenai County, is that while there is uncertainty on campus – and that includes among students, among parents of students, especially our dual enrollment students who make up a large portion of the NIC population – the staff and faculty that remain on campus have really done a phenomenal job as far as maintaining the academic standards on campus and are continuing to do their work, despite this real environment of uncertainty on an administrative level.
IR: What are some of the concerns around accreditation given Swayne’s reinstatement?
Thornbrugh: Back when Swayne was initially benched by the board of trustees – when he was placed on that indefinite administrative leave – in short order North Idaho College received a warning from its accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, that identified these frequent administrative shakeups as a real area of concern as far as stability of the college goes. That escalated to a show cause sanction in February of this year. Now, “show cause” is the last step before loss of accreditation. So, at that point, a lot of effort was focused on resolving the areas of concern that had been identified by the accreditor. The Swayne lawsuit, or his employment situation in general, tied in in two ways. One of which was that at that time, North Idaho College was engaged in multiple lawsuits related to some of these decisions by the board that culminated in Swayne’s suspension. Another issue is that his suspension essentially created a vacuum of power and a lot of confusion, administratively speaking, on campus where at that time – and to this day – North Idaho College had two presidents. At that time Nick Swayne was the president on administrative leave, and there was also a newly hired interim president named Greg South who the board majority had hired in December 2022 shortly after they benched Swayne. The NWCCU identified that as a real area of concern as far as the confusion it created regarding who is actually running the operations day to day at North Idaho College. When Swayne was reinstated to his position, he and South essentially swapped places, where South has remained on paid administrative leave though at least it seemed that at Swayne wasn’t going anywhere. The day-to-day operations were going to remain consistent and there was less confusion as to who was in charge over at the college. This appeal by the college can potentially throw that into question again, and we have yet to see any movement as far as the NWCCU was concerned. So, it’s difficult to say at this point what, if anything, the accreditor makes of this development. So far, that remains to be seen.
IR: For those who might be unfamiliar, what does the loss of accreditation mean for the students? What could that mean?
Thornbrugh: The loss of accreditation would have a huge impact on students. First and foremost, it means that they would not be eligible for many types of financial aid. It also means that their credits may not transfer to other institutions, which at a community college, as I’m sure most people can easily imagine, is a very big deal. It would also throw into jeopardy a lot of our career technical programs at North Idaho College, which includes our nursing program and various other career technical programs which, while they are separately accredited through their own bodies depending on what the field is, they have to be offered through an accredited institution. There is an additional wrinkle in that no college in Idaho has ever lost accreditation, and to my knowledge, no college in Idaho has ever come as close as North Idaho College is getting right now. There is no provision in Idaho law that accounts for what happens after an institution loses accreditation. In fact, colleges in Idaho are legally required to be accredited through the NWCCU. So, in the event that North Idaho College loses accreditation, nobody really knows for sure what would happen. Whether that’s what would happen to funding for the college. Whether that’s what might happen to property, buildings, resources, materials owned by the college. There’s just a big question mark there. Nobody knows for sure what would happen – and certainly folks here are hoping that we don’t have to find out.
IR: Do you have any insight into how this would impact the president’s ability to govern moving forward, this dispute with the board that’s ongoing? Are they communicating? How is that situation moving forward?
Thornbrugh: Well, it appears tense from an outside perspective. It appears tense, and that tension has been present for a long time. One element here is that the accreditation issues that North Idaho College is going through at this time is different than what you would typically see when a college is in this situation. Normally, when accreditation is in jeopardy, that’s because of issues related to academics or issues related to finances – and in both of those areas, NIC is doing just fine. No problems there. The core issue here is with board governance, and the NWCCU has certainly identified as an area of concern the type of authority and the types of actions that the board majority – or I should say, the board as a whole – has taken and attempted to take throughout this process. There’s been a real sense that in some areas the board may be stepping into areas of governance that are not normally under its purview, such as college operations, which are supposed to be the sole purview of the college president. So, this certainly raises questions as far as how the board and the college president are going to be able to continue working together for the common good of college and for college operations as a whole.
IR: How does NIC move forward from here? What are the next steps, knowing what we know?
Thornbrugh: Well, back in June, when the NWCCU gave its decision to North Idaho College that it would essentially extend the show cause order and give NIC more time to get back in compliance with these accreditation requirements and standards and more time to solve these problems, they laid out a general timeline with expectations of check-ins and goals to meet at each stage. The next thing that’s coming up is the NWCCU expects to receive essentially a progress report from NIC this month. At this stage, we don’t know what that progress report is going to look like or what’s going to be made of it. The NWCCU is also planning another site visit sometime in this fall to get back on campus to check in with the staff, the faculty, the administration. So, we are potentially going to be seeing in the next few months – maybe sooner rather than later – to get a better idea of how this appeal might impact NIC’s efforts to get back on track with accreditation standards and requirements.
IR: Has the board weighed in at all on – well, publicly, that is – regarding whether they’re concerned that this appeal to the Supreme Court will impact accreditation?
Thornbrugh: The board has not yet weighed in publicly, though there is a public- the next regular meeting of the board of trustees is going to fall on Wednesday, September 20th. So, we may get more insight then.
IR: All right. Well, maybe I’ll follow up with you on September 20th, but best of luck. Kaye Thornbrugh, thanks for joining us.