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NIC under accreditation microscope

by HANNAH NEFF Hagadone News Network
| December 4, 2021 1:00 AM

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COEUR d'ALENE — The accrediting organization for North Idaho College is coming to Coeur d'Alene as complaints and concerns mount.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities said in a letter to the college Wednesday that based on the analysis of alleged facts, “NIC’s ability to maintain compliance with the United States Department of Education’s regulations, and Accreditation Procedures is of concern.”

“These are serious allegations that NIC will not take lightly,” Interim President Michael Sebaaly said in an email to the college and made available to the community on Thursday. “While our accreditation is solid today, we cannot take that for granted and as you will read in the NWCCU letter, the tone of concern is real.”

The site visit was sparked by a second complaint over actions of the NIC board of trustees. Sent on Nov. 1 by the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and Spokane, Bonner and Boundary County Human Rights Task Forces, the letter follows a first complaint sent in March. Two follow-up letters were sent on Aug. 26 and Sept. 10.

The task forces initially cited the actions of Board Chair Todd Banducci and trustees Greg McKenzie and Michael Barnes, calling their actions “counter to civil and human rights and civil liberties protected by the United States Constitution, Federal laws, Idaho laws and NIC policies for all NIC employees and students."

In July, the NWCCU required NIC to submit an Ad Hoc Report no later than Aug. 1, 2022 for evaluation and possible follow-up monitoring.

But after the latest complaint, the onsite visit was requested by the NWCCU to occur as soon as possible, preferably during the week of Jan. 17.

A panel of regional representatives of higher education with will review NIC’s compliance with NWCCU Eligibility Requirements and Standards for Accreditation, and “undertake an in-person, onsite inquiry of facts and circumstances related to financial sustainability and student outcomes as a result of recent decisions undertaken at NIC, including by its Board of Trustees.”

They request students, faculty, staff, administrators, and members of the board of trustees be available for interviews.

Sebaaly said that as there’s still a lot about the process they don’t know, NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswamy and Senior Vice President Ron Larsen will be meeting with Sebaaly and Steve Kurtz, NIC’s accreditation liaison officer, to discuss specifics of the visit.

Kurtz said the “fact-finding” visit is treated a little differently than the traditional year seven visit or mid-cycle visit that colleges go through as part of retaining accreditation.

He said all the details are pretty much up to the NWCCU and that he and Sebaaly will learn more about the process through the meeting.

Sebaaly met with members of the President’s Cabinet and Executive Accreditation Committee on Wednesday as well as informed the board of trustees.

“As we get more information, we will share it out and be as transparent as we can with the community,” Sebaaly said. “We are going to continue to meet and prepare for that visit.”

The NWCCU's Dec. 1 letter indicates they'll be looking at the “demonstration of high ethical standards in governance, management, and operations, including the NIC Board of Trustees’ responsibility to ensure integrity and transparency of its deliberations and actions, ethical treatment of stakeholders and constituents, adherence to statutory requirements and institutional policies, and adherence to conflict of interest policies.”

Through NIC’s communication officer, Banducci told The Press Thursday he is asking his fellow trustees to set aside differences and work to support Sebaaly at the visit in January.

“I’m confident Dr. Sebaaly and his leadership team will present the visiting team with an accurate picture that we’re listening to our community, giving them the learning experiences they want,” Banducci said via Laura Rumpler. “When the board meets with representatives from the commission, I’ll take their fact-finding mission with serious credence.”

Other concerns listed by the NWCCU include:

• Eligibility concerning the sufficiency of faculty, staff and administrators to “ensure integrity and continuity of academic programs”

• Eligibility regarding “NIC’s financial health and sustainability in light of potential risk due to staff and faculty departures, declining student enrollments, and withdrawal of donations”

• Eligibility providing for “maintenance of NIC's physical facilities to ensure a healthy and safe learning and work environment”

The most recent complaint raised concerns about college leadership and management. The standard it refers to says:

“The institution has an effective system of leadership, staffed by qualified administrators, with appropriate levels of responsibility and accountability, who are charged with planning, organizing, and managing the institution and assessing its achievements and effectiveness.”

The college now has seven open or soon-to-be-open leadership positions including president, all three vice president roles, and all three dean roles.

Vice President for Student Services Graydon Stanley announced on Nov. 5 he will retire Jan. 3 because of changes made at the college through the board of trustees.

On Nov. 16, Vice President of Finance and Business Affairs Chris Martin announced his intent to look for other job opportunities due to the actions of the board.

Christy Doyle, Dean of Instruction - Workforce Education, announced her retirement on Jan. 4 as she said she determined her values and leadership philosophy were not congruent with NIC’s new direction.

The college now has two interim deans and a search process underway for permanent person in each dean position. Sebaaly asked Kassie Silvas, a former NIC dean, to return to NIC in a new position as interim provost. She'll take over the roles of Stanley and retiring Vice President for Instruction Lita Burns.

Regarding health and safe environment, on Sept. 22, Banducci, Barnes and McKenzie voted against a policy for measures and procedures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases as required by Idaho Code 33-2145.

Trustee Ken Howard, an attorney, said at that meeting the board was in violation of state law, as they had not done their job to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

On financial concerns, Rumpler, the Chief Communications and Government Relations Officer, said the college remains committed to maintaining a close watch over resources and expenditures.

Rumpler said that during NIC’s most recent reaffirmation in 2020, the college received a commendation for stewardship and financial management and has a reputation of stellar financial management and prudent long term fiscal planning.

Rumpler said the FY21 external audit accepted by the Board on Nov. 15 stated “the college has been diligent with all audits and has a strong balance sheet that demonstrates the college’s ability to maintain stability.”

However, support is declining for the private, independent charitable corporation, the NIC Foundation, which provides scholarship support and program enrichment for NIC students.

Steve Materson, President of the NIC Foundation Board of Directors, confirmed the complaint statement that longtime sponsors of the NIC Foundation have indicated they are not going to continue their contributions for the near future. That will result in the loss of millions of dollars for programs and scholarships, Materson said.

He said the Foundation has received multiple communications from donors concerned about the actions of the board of trustees.

In addition to prior concerns, the Nov. 1 complaint by the human rights task forces questions trustees' decision to hire head wrestling coach Sebaaly as interim president after the firing of former President Rick MacLennan. Sebaaly has no record of administrative leadership.

The complaint cites a standard that says, “The institution employs an appropriately qualified chief executive officer with full-time responsibility to the institution.”

Other candidates for the internally posted interim president position included two vice presidents, a dean and interim dean, a division chair, director, and chair of the staff assembly. These candidates were not interviewed, nor were they even discussed for the role, according to Trustee Christie Wood.

At the Oct. 12 board meeting, Trustees Banducci, McKenzie and Barnes voted to move the requirement of five minimum years of experience in higher education administration/senior leadership to just a preference, allowing Sebaaly to qualify. The only requirement left for the position was a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution.

Banducci said at the Oct. 12 meeting he wanted to open the position to more people as the requirement was too limiting.

Preference included progressive senior level administrative experience at community college, experience working in business and industry and/or career/technical education and higher education teaching experience from the job posting.

The task forces' complaint said Sebaaly met only the higher education teaching experience preference. He has a doctorate in educational leadership from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan.

In contrast, the requirements for the 2016 presidential search were much more stringent, the complaint said.

In 2016, requirements included experience working with finance and budgets, fundraising and grants, emergency preparedness policy and procedures, American Indian communities, and community building, among many more. The candidate also had to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and comprehensive understanding of the accreditation process.

The complaint said they believed the 2016 qualifications more appropriately fulfilled the requirements listed in the NWCCU Standards, and “the Board deliberately diluted the requirements to allow someone not appropriately qualified for this position to be selected.”

Trustees Wood and Howard opposed the vote to appoint Sebaaly. Wood said there was no integrity or honesty in the selection process.

“Trustee Howard and myself have been very vocal and upset at the disrespect shown to our community and employees by the majority of the board as they employed a sham of a process to select an interim president,” Wood said in an email to The Press.

Wood said the illegitimate process is no reflection on Sabaaly.

Sebaaly said he's employed by the board of trustees and thinks the board chose him as interim because he was uniquely qualified at the time. He said his educational dissertation was on board governance at community colleges and he understands those relationships.

“I'm working hard through difficult times and I'm leading, and I'm helping and I'm serving our people,” Sebaaly told The Press. “I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

Sebaaly said he has experience in bridging relationships, recruiting, retaining, transferring, fundraising, and other leadership experience as things he regularly does as a coach, and is using the same skills as interim president.

He said his leadership is displayed in what he’s done at the college as well as other colleges.

“All of those experiences create who I am, not just one job,” Sebaaly said. “Based on my varied experiences, the board selected me and I’m proud to serve and work with them.”

Although the trustees signed a letter of commitment to addressing and resolving concerns from the NWCCU in May, the Nov. 1. complaint states the human rights and relations task forces have seen no evidence to indicate the new board majority was taking steps to correct the concern, and have simply ignored the complaints.

“Enough time and actions have occurred over the last 11 months under the new board majority to remove any doubt about their willingness to clearly violate individual constitutional rights and well-established accreditation requirements and standards,” the complaint said.

The complaint said if NIC is allowed to continue to defy and ignore criteria listed by the NWCCU, it will “establish a dangerous precedent and challenge to the NWCCU for its future work with institutions it oversees as to accreditation.”

Based on continued actions of the board, the human rights task forces foresee in NIC’s future:

• Threat to health and safety of students and employees, for example banning the face mask mandate;

• a serious crisis in morale that will negatively affect student instruction in the classroom;

• signs that diversity, cultural sensitivity and global awareness will be under attack due to the extreme philosophy held by the new Board majority emboldened by the supporters of the new NIC regime who are publicly labeling social justice and diversity programs as communist doctrine.

“The alleged verbal and physical attack by Trustee Todd Banducci on a female employee that Dr. Rick MacLennan refused to ignore (raises) the question who will now guard against such grievous acts,” the complaint said.

They include that it is their view, based on the current board majority’s ideology, no president or administration will be free to implement policies of the board without micromanagement of the board.

“Based upon the deeply held extreme ideological positions by the three-member Board majority along with their commitment to their dedicated political base, we see no way forward to accommodate their entrenched philosophy with the requirements of the NWCCU,” the complaint said.

Sebaaly said that in regards to diversity, the environment at NIC is healthy and safe for all students and provides access and opportunity for the community. Rumpler said one of NIC’s longstanding core values is diversity and the essence of a community college is supporting learners of all abilities and backgrounds.

NIC’s accreditation is in good standing. However, Burns said at the Oct. 27 board meeting that without a pattern of change in the board’s behavior, that status may change.

Should the NWCCU decide to sanction the college after the January visit, NIC’s page of FAQs on the investigation states there are three options.

• Warning: When the commission finds that NIC has pursued a course that, if continued, could lead to more serious sanctions, it may issue to the institution a warning to correct its deficiencies, to refrain from certain activities, or to initiate certain activities within a stated period of time. A warning is a public sanction and does not affect the accredited status of NIC.

• Probation: A negative sanction indicating that NIC failed to respond to the concerns (including warning) communicated by the commission, or when the college deviates significantly from the commission’s standards, policies, or eligibility requirements, but not to such an extent as to warrant the issuing of a show-cause order or withdrawal of candidacy or accreditation, NIC may be placed on probation for a specified period of time.

• Show Cause: This is the last step prior to removing accreditation. A show cause order would be issued requesting that the institution respond to the stated concerns of the commission within a specified time. The burden of proof rests with NIC to demonstrate why its accreditation should be continued.

In an Oct. 31 email, Burns told a concerned student that it would likely take 2-3 years for the college to lose accreditation if they do not correct the areas of concern.

Student credits will transfer to a four-year institution if they graduate or transfer from NIC while accreditation is in good standing.

“The recent focus on the college’s accreditation status does present challenges related to the recruitment and retention of students as well as qualified faculty and staff that may impact the short-term economic outlook for the college,” Rumpler said. “It’s important for us to remain transparent in the process of our work with our key stakeholders and the NWCCU as we prepare for the site visit.”

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Banducci

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Wood

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Howard

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McKenzie

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Barnes

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Rumpler

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