Staff Writer | November 13, 2021 1:06 AM
COEUR d’ALENE — After 38 years teaching political science at North Idaho College, Tony Stewart retired in 2008.
But he didn't stop teaching.
On Friday, Stewart dissected North Idaho College's accreditation situation during a Zoom presentation with members of the Kootenai County Democrats.
The highest level of accreditation that a college can receive is a 10-year approval, Stewart said. In the past, NIC has achieved that level multiple times.
“In my years at NIC, I was there for four accreditations. For 14 years I served as a division chair,” Stewart said. “Division chairs are deeply involved in the process, so I am speaking from years of experience of working in that relationship.”
Last year before Todd Banducci, Greg McKenzie and Michael Barnes took over control of the NIC board of trustees, NIC had always received accolades and approval for the “great things they were doing,” Stewart said, without naming any of the trustees.
Many criteria are considered in evaluating accreditation, Stewart said. Things like student learning, effective communication, global awareness, operations, diversity, inclusion, treating students and staff with dignity, non-discrimination and evaluation of meeting educational needs are all scrutinized.
“It’s all about diversity and inclusion and everyone being able to examine issues and be treated with dignity,” Stewart said. “Another one that is extremely important is non-discrimination. The institution is governed and administered with respect to the individual in a non-discriminatory manner. There is zero tolerance for discrimination.”
The last accreditation review netted NIC accolades.
“In this last accreditation the college got as high as they’ve ever gotten in praise,” Stewart said. “It was so praised for what they did in relation to the finances, the institutional facilities, the students, the faculty, employees, administration and the board. From my perspective, I expected that would happen.”
But “a new majority on the board” has caused some serious issues, Stewart said.
When the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations joined several other rights groups in filing a formal complaint with the accreditation review board, the board responded with something Stewart did not expect.
“Once they examined and accepted our complaint as having merit, they particularly were interested in two of our (complaints) — non-discrimination and academic freedom," Stewart said.
"The commission did something extremely interesting that was not in our complaint: They added a complaint about the governing board."
The governing board is there to make policy, choose the president and approve the budget, Stewart said. It is not there to micro-manage day-to-day operations.
“The commission, in their report, saw real troubles in that arena,” Stewart said. “That separation is so important. And that led later to the conflict with the outstanding president of the college, Dr. (Rick) MacLennan. That criteria was violated.”
Another area of concern is that of academic freedom, Stewart said.
“I don’t have time in this hour to go through some of our complaints from our original one, but this one was seriously violated from the documents and the evidence that we have,” he said.
When a complaint is filed with the accreditation commission, it is taken very seriously, Stewart said. Sometimes they find that complaints have no merit, but when merit appears to exist, they thoroughly examine it and take action.
“I want to emphasize something,” Stewart said. “When you are told that NIC is a liberal bastion that does not tolerate or respect conservative views, that cannot be true, because the commission would not tolerate that.”
The accreditation commission is tied to the Department of Education. When action is taken concerning accreditation, the Department of Education is involved in that, Stewart said.
North Idaho College is at risk of losing accreditation, which means that credits received for completed classes would not be eligible to transfer to a university, he said.
Federal funding can also be at risk.
“I want to be clear that there are other options to protect NIC if that happens,” Stewart said. “And I’m not saying it will ever happen, but if it did, the state does have the option of placing NIC under the University of Idaho. The college could be protected in the most serious scenario of that.”
For the past 51 years, Stewart has worked closely with NIC faculty, staff, students and every president except Michael Sebaaly, the recently appointed interim president.
“I can assure you that faculty, staff and students have been respected through all of those 51 years,” Stewart said. “I have evidence of that.”
Through his 39 years of free public discourse with “The Popcorn Forum,” allowing people from all walks of life to share their viewpoints without discrimination, Stewart can attest to NIC operating with the highest dignity and regard for all.
“During all of those years, we had people from the far right and the far left and everything in between,” Stewart said. “We were not in the business of censoring ideas, and I have all the records. If anyone ever challenges me, good luck, because I’ll show them the record.”