Rural US college leader fired by partisan board activists

Conservative campaign for control of North Idaho College ends with ousting of Rick MacLennan and anger over masks

September 23, 2021
Rick MacLennan
Source: Jerome Pollos
Rick MacLennan had been North Idaho’s president for five years

The governing board of North Idaho College has voted to fire its president in the climax of a years-long campaign by local politicians to fight what they regard as liberal bias in US higher education.

The five-member board ousted Rick MacLennan, North Idaho’s president for the past five years, in a contentious two-hour session marked by yelling from the audience and the board, and confusion and legal questions over plans for a replacement.

The move was led by three Republican activists who successfully campaigned for spots on the elected board last year after being put forth by local party leaders because of their stated commitment to ideological purity.

It stands as the latest and arguably most calculated drive by partisans in deeply conservative parts of the US to confront college leaders in the Trump era for policies that include promoting racial equity and compassion and, more recently, adhering to medical advice on Covid.

Other recent instances include W. Joseph King, who resigned last month as president of Lyon College in Arkansas after bemoaning the area’s “large white-supremacist population”, and F. King Alexander, who left the presidency of Louisiana State University in 2019 after battling to improve racial diversity at LSU.

At the southern end of Idaho, about 400 miles from the main North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene, the president of Boise State University, Marlene Tromp, has been hit by similar political pressures, including over her requirements that face coverings be worn indoors.

And while Dr MacLennan was being pushed out at North Idaho, more than 50 faculty at the University of Georgia defied state policy by announcing they will require masks to be worn in their classrooms.

That is also a major issue at the 6,000-student North Idaho, which as a comprehensive community college provides both academic course offerings and technical training. Ahead of its vote on Dr MacLennan, the board reiterated its earlier override of his requirement for wearing masks on campus.

One of the three board members elected with the help of local Republican leaders, Michael Barnes, a US Navy veteran and computer security professional, told the meeting that he opposed any mandate that “a medical device be applied to individuals against their will”.

“These statistics are often horrifying to hear,” Mr Barnes said of Covid death rates, which are again rising in parts of the US that have resisted vaccinations and masks. “But statistics are statistics, and we hear statistics all the time.

“The issue isn’t for me, the statistics,” Mr Barnes said. He was instead guided, he said, by his sense that the pandemic “cannot be stopped”, and that responding to that belief “is a matter of personal responsibility and individual freedom”.

The North Idaho trustees publicly gave no reason for removing Dr MacLennan, though their chairman, Todd Banducci, a Republican Party-backed military veteran and insurance salesman, blamed that lack of explanation on the refusal of two other board members to permit the closed-door session needed for personnel reviews.

Both of those opposition trustees condemned Mr Banducci and his allies for firing Dr MacLennan and openly mocked him at the session for being so hasty to act that he was left struggling to articulate a succession plan.

In a confusing series of votes and attempted votes that the college’s legal counsel described as legally dubious, the three-member majority named Lita Burns, the college’s vice-president of instruction, as acting president.

But the trustees had not consulted with Dr Burns in advance to set such details as when she would start, how long she would serve and how much she would be paid. She asked at the session for immediate discussions on those points, leaving Mr Banducci to concede that that could not be done before Dr MacLennan’s firing took effect.

One of those two trustees opposing the firing, Ken Howard, called the situation “disgusting”. The other, Christie Wood, shouted warnings at Mr Banducci that the process would leave trustees open to legal liability.

One woman in the audience, before being removed by security at Mr Banducci’s direction, castigated him for bringing partisan chaos, shouting at him: “You have ruined a great institution!”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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