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News / Northwest

NIC makes hiring of acting president ‘null and void’ ahead of accreditor’s campus visit

By James Hanlon, The Spokesman-Review
Published: April 25, 2023, 7:33am

SPOKANE — The North Idaho College board of trustees Monday undid the hiring of president Nick Swayne, but will keep him as acting president.

The board voted 3-2 to cure an alleged open meeting law violation in June 2022, by making Swayne’s contract “null and void.” However, he will remain as acting president “in light of ongoing litigation and accreditation,” Trustee Todd Banducci said in a motion.

In another motion, Banducci proposed changing NIC policy to take authority from the president to appoint college officers.

“I guarantee we will lose accreditation if you do this,” Swayne said.

The meeting occurred just ahead of a site visit this week by the college’s accreditor, Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

The issue of presidential leadership is central to the college’s accreditation crisis. Among other board governance concerns, uncertainty about who is NIC’s chief executive officer is one of the risks identified by the agency in the sanction issued earlier this year against the college.

The board met inside a full room at the Kootenai County Administration Building instead of the student union building on campus. Chair Greg McKenzie called several recesses throughout the meeting as the crowd got excited.

After Banducci withdrew his proposal to change the policy, McKenzie made another motion, against Swayne’s judgment, that would require chair approval before the president hires anyone. The motion did not go to a vote.

Trustees Brad Corkill and Tarie Zimmerman opposed undoing Swayne’s contract because they said it goes against a Kootenai County District Court judge’s legal opinion that the statute of limitations to cure open meeting violations related to his hiring has passed.

The board also moved unanimously to release NIC attorney Art Macomber’s long-awaited report on his investigation of Swayne’s contract. The report will be published by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Macomber began the investigation in December after recommending the board place Swayne on leave.

Swayne is suing NIC for violating his contract by placing him on leave without cause. He was reinstated last month following a preliminary injunction from Kootenai County District Court.

“To the court, it appears that the investigation is a sham and pretext for Dr. Swayne’s removal from his position as President,” Judge Cynthia Meyer wrote in her order to reinstate Swayne for the remainder of the lawsuit.

NIC has asked the court to reconsider the injunction. Interim president Greg South remains on paid leave and in good standing.

McKenzie also proposed censuring Corkill for unauthorized distribution of Macomber’s report, but the motion failed.

“Corkill willfully disseminated confidential information protected by attorney-client privilege,” McKenzie said.

Corkill responded that attorney-client privilege means the attorney can’t talk about it, but there was no provision that he could not talk about it.

“My allegiance and fiduciary responsibility is to the college and the taxpayers of Kootenai County,” he said. “It is not to the members of the board and certainly not to its attorney.”

He said the report should be available for everyone to see what Macomber has been doing.

The crowd responded with vigorous applause, and McKenzie called a 10-minute recess.

Banducci read a statement from the cover sheet of the document that said it was confidential among board members.

“Trustee Corkill is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever known,” Zimmerman said.

The “attorney-client privilege” label is often used to “strong-arm” board members, she said.

Macomber said attorney-client privilege is between him and his client, which is the board as a whole.

Banducci said he would vote against the censure if Corkill would agree to not release any more privileged information prematurely.

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Corkill only said he would warn the board in the future.

A team of five peer evaluators for the accreditation agency will visit the campus Wednesday and Thursday to verify information NIC submitted last month and to assess the college’s compliance with accreditation requirements.

The team, comprising representatives from NWCCU member institutions, will individually interview each member of the NIC board of trustees, Swayne and the president’s cabinet. The evaluators will also host forums with students and employees.

The team will deliver a report within a few weeks, and NIC will be given a chance to respond to any factual errors.

The agency’s board of commissioners will consider the final report and decide the fate of NIC’s accreditation in June.

The next NIC board meeting is Wednesday night.