North Idaho College breaks new ground and prepares for life without accreditation

COEUR d'ALENE — North Idaho College trustees reached an agreement this week on how to prepare for the worst-case scenario if the college loses its accreditation next spring, but administrators are optimistic it won't come to that.

Since last February, NIC has been operating under a sanction imposed by its accrediting body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The sanction is the last step before losing accreditation.

The sanction against NIC was not due to financial or academic problems, as is usually the case with universities facing loss of accreditation, but rather due to board governance issues dating back to 2020.

“The board as a whole is now moving in a better direction,” NIC President Nick Swayne said on Friday. “I think we are back on track.”

In fact, the NIC has addressed several of the issues highlighted by the NWCCU. Interim President Greg South's 18-month contract expired on June 30, leaving the college with only one president, as the commission recommended. The NIC has also settled several lawsuits, including the Supreme Court appeal of Swayne's reinstatement, which trustees dropped by a 4-1 vote.

Some areas of concern remain. For example, the board must “address the issues underlying any votes of no confidence” from staff and students and “demonstrate its willingness to cooperate and support faculty, staff and students when their concerns are communicated.”

Under federal regulations, NIC must restore its good standing by April 1, 2025. If the college has not done so by that date, NWCCU must withdraw accreditation.

Given the progress made so far, Swayne said he was optimistic.

“We are in a much better position now than in the past,” he said.

If NIC loses its accreditation, it is unclear what would happen next. Idaho law provides no framework for how to handle loss of accreditation; it has never happened in the state before.

“We are in an unprecedented situation right now,” Trustee Brad Corkill said Friday. “There is no plan we can follow. We are in a complete timeout because of the board's behavior.”

During a special meeting on Tuesday, trustees discussed what options are available in the event of loss of accreditation.

Federal regulations require the NIC to negotiate formal “teach-out” agreements with other institutions that would allow currently enrolled students to complete their studies elsewhere. New students would not be able to enroll. Once the teach-out agreements are completed, the college would close.

NIC could apply for re-accreditation after two years, but the college would essentially have to start over.

“This option effectively leads to the permanent closure or demise of the NIC,” Steve Kurtz, the NIC's accreditation officer, told trustees on Tuesday.

Swayne pointed out that implementing teaching arrangements would place a burden on students as they would have to commute or move to another campus or take courses exclusively online.

“It’s just not practical in Idaho,” he said.

Another possibility is for the NIC to ask accrediting bodies and the federal government to temporarily place the NIC under the control of another accredited institution. Course offerings and student services would remain unchanged.

“This will give the college time to regain its status as a stand-alone, accredited institution,” Kurtz said. “This is the least disruptive (option). In this case, we would do our best to ensure that currently enrolled students do not feel the impact of the change at all.”

A final option, which the Trustees did not consider, would be to take no further action. Such inaction would likely result in immediate and permanent loss of accreditation.

“If we lose our accreditation, the only way we can really leave the community intact is to place the school at another school,” Trustee Mike Waggoner said Tuesday. “The problem is that the local community temporarily loses control.”

Trustee Greg McKenzie expressed reservations about turning to the University of Idaho for temporary control, initially saying he would prefer NIC to negotiate and then permanently enter into teaching contracts rather than operate under U of I authority.

Trustee Todd Banducci expressed similar concerns.

“It just seemed too convenient,” he said Tuesday. “It feels like there are people who have pushed us to this corner and then it gets pushed back on us trustees. 'Well, if you blow up the college or destroy it, then you're on it.' But no, we didn't drive that bus.”

Banducci has previously blamed the NIC's accreditation problems on the joint regional human rights working groups, which filed complaints with the NWCCU in 2021, citing numerous violations of the NWCCU's accreditation requirements and NIC policies. After investigating the complaints, the commission issued a warning to the NIC.

The trustees ultimately directed staff to prioritize the development of a temporary control agreement and to reach out to the College of Western Idaho, the College of Southern Idaho, and Lewis-Clark State College for that purpose.

“I think that was ultimately a really good perspective for the board,” Swayne said Friday.

Trustee Tarie Zimmerman agreed.

“In the worst case scenario, (this option) really seems to be the only way to keep NIC going,” she told The Press. “I don't know what that would look like to the board. But this option means the board is interested in keeping NIC going.”

Swayne stressed that neither the teach-out agreements nor any temporary control agreements would come into force unless the NIC lost its accreditation.

“We are taking really positive measures to ensure that the safeguards do not work,” he said.

NWCCU's next visit to the North Idaho College campus is scheduled for October 14 and 15.

Anna Harden

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