Tomorrow is the last official day on the job for the first woman president in North Idaho College history. Dr. Priscilla Bell led the college for five and a half years, but judging her tenure will take much longer to accurately gauge.
Here are just a few observations:
• No matter what you think of her policies or administrative characteristics, Dr. Bell has shown courage in doing something nobody else here had ever done. Much as we’d like to say North Idaho is progressive enough to judge any leader on her or his abilities, rather than gender, we know Dr. Bell faced additional challenges because she’s a woman. That she’s a woman who doesn’t have much back-down in her likely compounded some of the challenges, but elevated her in terms of respect from many of us. And courage has been on even more prominent display as Dr. Bell has publicly and fiercely battled breast cancer and other afflictions. Health problems rendered her less effective in the final days of her presidency, but they didn’t diminish her accomplishments.
• In this space on Jan. 10, 2010, we publicly rebuked Dr. Bell not just for firing a college administrator we respect deeply, but for the manner in which she fired him. To this day she believes what she did was the right thing for the college. What we know for certain is that the fired employee has thrived on his own, so perhaps the ugly dismissal was a blessing in disguise. And to her credit, Dr. Bell didn’t burn bridges with this newspaper. She worked harder than ever to maintain the best relationships she could.
• Enrollment during Dr. Bell’s tenure increased significantly. How much credit should she receive for that? Possibly little or none. In a down economy — the kind that prevailed during much of her presidency — community colleges often grow as unemployed and underemployed people seek certificates or degrees. But here’s where she clearly deserves credit: Not only did NIC accommodate huge growth during the recession, but it did so without any evidence of erosion or dilution of its quality offerings. It also met rampant demand without increasing its budget anywhere close to the proportion of that demand. That’s a hallmark of strong leadership.
• Dr. Bell’s tenure coincided too closely with improvements along the education corridor to call it pure happenstance. Despite disagreements throughout the community about how it was financed or whether the timing was right to begin work, there’s no question that NIC’s place in the heart of that corridor is better than ever. Will the ends justify the means? It’s too early to tell, but we like what we see so far.
• The ultimate question for a president or CEO is, does she or he leave the organization in better shape than he/she found it? In our view, Dr. Bell has. NIC is more forward-thinking and in tune with what the surrounding community needs than it has been in many years.
• Beyond her role at NIC, Dr. Bell has made significant contributions to the community through her work on the boards of Jobs Plus, Inc. — the region’s economic development agency — and Court Appointed Special Advocates, which does tremendous work with children who find themselves in the court system through no fault of their own. Dr. Bell and her husband, Jim Reitan, plan to stay here and continue to contribute to the benefit of the community, and we applaud them both for that.