A community college board in northern Idaho has been torn asunder after a wrestling coach with no apparent experience in running schools was appointed interim president weeks after its pro-mask mandate president was fired.
The North Idaho College Board of Trustees booted Rick MacLennan during a September meeting, after repeatedly delaying a vote to renew his contract and a weeks-long bitter dispute over whether or not masks should be required on campus to protect the staff and students.
When he announced the mask mandate before the start of classes, MacLennan framed it as “not the least bit desirable” but a necessary effort supported by health guidance that “improves our chances of being able to stay open this fall.”
But just four days into the semester, MacLennan wrote to the community alerting them to a revised policy after the mask requirement was knocked down by the college’s Board of Trustees.
“I am truly hopeful that you, and importantly, our students choose to continue masking despite the lifting of the requirement,” MacLennan wrote in his Aug. 30 letter.
MacLennan’s call for a mandate was swatted down in a 3-2 board vote by Chair Todd Banducci, along with trustees Greg McKenzie and Michael Barnes, who voted in favor of rescinding the mandate. Trustees Ken Howard and Christie Wood voted against it.
In an email to the Daily Beast on Wednesday, Wood described the trustees who rejected the mandate as having “made no secret” of their opposition to face masks.
“We are dealing with a terrible surge of Covid in our region so the President re-implemented the policy for a 2 week period to slow the curve,” she wrote. “These three board members have strong ideology against masks. They have made no secret of that. The three of them are local GOP Precinct Committeemen and that group has been especially vocal and aggressive against the use of masks.”
In a copy of an email to the board obtained by Inside Higher Ed, MacLennan pleaded with board members to reconsider their decision, citing an open letter from medical professionals encouraging the measure, while flagging “increasing COVID-19 positive cases within our college community” driven by the Delta variant.
Weeks later MacLennan, whose contract had been regularly renewed since his appointment in 2016, was terminated by the board. On Monday, the board voted 3-2 to select Michael Sebaaly, who coached wrestling at the college, to serve as interim president until they could conduct a sweeping, nationwide talent search for a new president.
Wood called the two-hour executive session on Monday “a corrupt proceeding that appeared to be a total sham.”
“No qualifications of applicants were considered and no there were no interviews of the applicants by anyone not even our Administration,” she wrote in her email, while declining to comment about Sebaaly directly.
Banducci, McKenzie, and Barnes—the same trio who opposed the mask mandate—supported Sebaaly’s appointment, which was first reported by the Spokesman-Review.
According to an online biography describing his credentials, Sebaaly has a doctorate in educational leadership and spent five years as head wrestling coach at Northwest Kansas Technical College. The qualifications listed on the school’s website don’t detail his leadership experience outside of sports.
Sebaaly did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Wednesday about any other qualifications for the role which boasts a $200,000 prorated salary and oversees an institution of 5,000 enrolled students.
Wood, who opposed Sebaaly’s appointment, said that at least three top candidates were selected by the board’s majority, and no explanation was given as to why others with years of experience were ignored.
“Some of these people are just personal acquaintances with the board chair,” Wood told the Spokesman-Review. “The process has been completely corrupted, and it’s been done so by three trustees who had people in mind for the position. It has nothing to do with qualifications to run a higher education institution. It has to do with personal friendships and (political) ideology.”
Board member Ken Howard, who also opposed Sebaaly’s appointment, had joined Wood to vote in support of including a required five years’ admin experience in higher education roles in the job description, according to the Coeur d’Alene Press. Howard did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
But according to a copy of the job ad circulating online, alongside a list of preferences, the only formal requirement for the role is a master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution, the Spokesman-Review reported. Sebaaly obtained a master’s degree in history from Buffalo State College.
In the aftermath of his firing, MacLennan filed a legal complaint against the college and the three board members who voted on Monday for his replacement, claiming he had been unlawfully fired.
The path to his departure has extended beyond mask mandates and was further complicated by other internal board politics and questionable conduct, colleagues said.
On Wednesday, Wood told The Daily Beast that the “mask issue no doubt exacerbated their desire to fire him but I believe the real reason stemmed from a personnel complaint the President filed against the board chair.”
In a media release after MacLennan’s firing on Sept. 22, Wood alleged that Banducci had been angling to do away with MacLennan for months after MacLennan made a complaint to the board about “harassment toward students, faculty, staff, administration as well as himself by newly elected Board Chair Todd Banducci.”
It triggered an unsuccessful recall effort against Banducci for behavior Wood described as “abusive and aggressive.”
“I believe this punitive employment action taken against President MacLennan is in direct response to his complaint filed against Trustee Banducci,” Wood wrote in the media release, which touted the “excellent” COVID response during MacLennan’s tenure among other accomplishments.
The board at North Idaho College has been embroiled in an ongoing investigation by its accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, since March, after it received a formal complaint about Banducci and other board members.
Banducci and a spokesperson for the school did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication on Wednesday.