Idaho president finds bigger job under partisan fire

As fierce partisanship silences US academics, a fired leader gets an even bigger job that rewards his resistance

March 29, 2023
A man holds a 'stop' sign
Source: iStock

An Idaho college president fired in a hyper-partisan takeover of his governing board has landed at an institution several times larger that valued his experience in resisting political interference.

Rick MacLennan, a former president of North Idaho College, is in his first year as chancellor heading the Ventura County Community College District in southern California. He spent five years leading North Idaho College before conservative activists in the Coeur d’Alene community mounted an electoral takeover of NIC’s governing board and forced Dr MacLennan out over his acceptance of face mask requirements early in the pandemic.

At a moment of expanding partisan interference in US higher education, the recently departed chair of Ventura’s board of trustees, Dianne McKay, said the three-campus 30,000-student district embraced Dr MacLennan’s encounter with the North Idaho board as a central asset for his candidacy.

“He has a strong backbone,” Ms McKay told Times Higher Education. “He’s seen the worst, he’s been fired over politics, and so I think that has made him a stronger leader – and I think we’re going to get the benefit of that.”

Dr MacLennan said he was surprised, pleasantly, to be so well received at Ventura after several caustic final months in Idaho punctuated by moments of yelling at the board meeting where he was dismissed from the 6,000-student institution.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure I could get hired,” he said. “Especially with a conflict with a president and a board, trustees tend to get a little bit nervous about that.”

The case suggests for some higher education experts a contrast to the counterproductive fear arising elsewhere in the country, where many institutional leaders have acquiesced as partisan politicians have ordered limits on curricula, faculty expression, student civil rights, equity-minded hiring, and norms of shared governance.

In Florida – arguably the nation’s main theatre for such activity under Governor Ron DeSantis – many academics don’t even want to voice their concerns publicly, said Cirecie West-Olatunji, a former University of Florida professor now teaching at Xavier University of Louisiana. “They are afraid or angry, or both,” she said.

But a veteran of high-level campus politics, former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp, has been urging institutional leaders to push back harder against partisan interference and to trust that they will do better in the long run. Boards of trustees will change over time, Dr Thorp told THE, while academic colleagues will ultimately decide the success of careers.

“My motto about this is that the trustees can fire you from your current job, but the faculty can stop you from working anywhere,” said Dr Thorp, currently editor-in-chief of Science magazine.

North Idaho College under Dr MacLennan was making gains that included winning the top award from the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship in 2018. Early in the pandemic, however, Republican activists demanding ideological allegiance won seats as trustees and pushed him out. That put North Idaho College in a downward spiral that has included top administrators and faculty leaving; enrolment and donations declining; and a rotation of short-term presidents including a North Idaho wrestling coach whose chief qualification appeared to be loyalty toward the new trustees.

“I feel really terrible for the community,” Dr MacLennan said. “It takes a long time to build these things up, it's been around for 90 years, and in less than a year and a half, these guys have just about torn it down.” Fixing that will take a decade, at least, he said.

“I would have stayed at North Idaho College for my whole career,” Dr MacLennan said. “It’s a fantastic institution, and we had it in really good shape – the best leadership team I have ever worked with my entire career. We were definitely ascendant, and then the election of 2020 threw everything to hell in a handbasket.”

Ms McKay is head of a public relations agency who stepped down from the Ventura board last year after 12 years of service that included hiring Dr MacLennan. She said the board heard from several people familiar with the situation in Idaho who explained the respect that Dr MacLennan had earned there. One testimonial came from a long-time colleague regularly spending time in Coeur d’Alene who wrote to her unsolicited to endorse Dr MacLennan.

“It said, this guy is the real deal,” she said of the colleague's note. “What happened up here was a joke, and he was just doing such great things with the college.”

One of the North Idaho trustees who fought on Dr MacLennan’s behalf, Christie Wood, agreed. “Rick MacLennan never swayed from his integrity and principles during the entire debacle thrust upon him by the majority of the board,” Ms Wood said. “Ventura is lucky to have him.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles