So a group of extremists got themselves elected to a local governing board.
Is it really a big deal? What’s the worst that could happen?
Welcome to North Idaho College, where since its founding in 1933 many thousands have gotten a useful education. Here, three culture war zealots have become the majority on the elected governing board, and NIC is in chaos, its leadership all but wiped out and the institution on the brink of losing its accreditation.
Tony Stewart, a prominent professor there for almost 40 years, was quoted, “The college is going through, really, a crisis state. What lies ahead is it’s a very, very difficult time at North Idaho College.”
This didn’t come out of nowhere. Kootenai County has become an almost off-the-charts extremist place politically, and an accusation that someone or something is “politically correct” or “woke” is enough to launch an explosive response. Some level of controversy at NIC is not new.
One of the now-majority,Todd Banducci, has been on the board for a while, but until recently mostly limited to arguing (as he once did to a student) that he was contending with the “NIC ‘deep state’ on an ‘almost daily basis’.” In November 2020, however, as Banducci was running for re-election unopposed, another (moderate) incumbent was beaten by Banducci ally Gregory McKenzie (anti-masking was key in his campaign), and an open seat was won in a contest by Michael Barnes. (Both newcomers defeated long-time educators for the board seats.) All three winners for the legally non-partisan seats had been endorsed by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.
Once the new majority was in, things changed. The Chronicle of Higher Education said the college president, Rick MacLennan, early this year wrote an email to the board about “a pattern of ‘aggressive and intimidating’ behavior by Banducci, including, he wrote, disparaging MacLennan’s wife for supposedly being a Hillary Clinton supporter, and telling the president that they’d be meeting more frequently so that Banducci could give him his ‘marching orders.’ That, plus Banducci’s latest messages, indicated to MacLennan that the trustee intended to ‘inappropriately direct me without full board involvement and knowledge.’ The board, MacLennan wrote, needed to do something.”
The board did. In September, it (which is to say, three of the five members) fired MacLennan, a five year president at NIC, without cause. (He has since filed a lawsuit over the firing. Since then, the board majority, displeased with advice from the college’s attorney, has moved to hire its own. Sound familiar?) Most of the top-level executives at the college, including all three vice presidents, followed MacLennan out the door. The overall chaos, not only on personnel but on other matters as well, has led talk in Coeur d’Alene about the “destruction” of the college.
That isn’t just a political reaction. There is also an inquiry by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which accredits NIC, into what’s going on at the college.
This is serious, as the Idaho State Board of Education affirms. The state board president, Kurt Liebich, on December 3 sent a letter to the NIC board “to express deep concern about the current trajectory of North Idaho College … As duly elected fiduciaries and stewards of the College, it is imperative that you recognize the consequences of being sanctioned by NWCCU, many of which are numerous and severe.”
Not least: “If accreditation is lost, the value of a degree from NIC will be significantly reduced, or even negated entirely, for all students.”
Advocates for the board’s majority have taken to calling them “reform” candidates, but this is one of those cases where “reform” is redefined to mean “raze to the ground.”
Reviewing the situation, the Coeur d’Alene Press editorialized, “For anyone wondering what happens when unqualified, politically motivated candidates take over the governing board of a public entity, see the rapid and far-reaching destruction being wrought at North Idaho College.”
There is one piece of hopefulness: It doesn’t have to be this way. All that has to happen to avoid this kind of chaos is for enough voters to exercise enough wisdom to not elect human wrecking balls to their local governments.