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Van Dempsey speaks out about being removed as Dean of Watson: ‘I did not choose to leave’

Following the Razor Walker Awards on April 25, 2023, Van Dempsey, the Dean of Watson Education has since been removed from his position. UNCW announced on June 26 that Van Dempsey would be “leaving his position,” effective July 14.

During the award ceremony, many faculty and staff members took part in a visual demonstration by walking out to protest Senator Lee’s (R) nomination for the award due to his support for Senate Bill 49, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Nominees are selected through a written public process where people can nominate anyone they believe is worthy of the award. The Watson College and the Dean’s office review the nomination forms and establish a group to examine the nominees and provide a ranking based on criteria set by the reviewers. Each person picks their top five nominees to see where there is overlap in nominees. It was Van Dempsey’s responsibility to communicate to the chancellor a list of the selected nominees after they have been formally reviewed.

From left, Former Dean of Watson College of Education Van Dempsey, Sen. Michael Lee (R) and UNCW Chancellor Aswani K. Volety present Sen. Lee with the Razor Walker Award for Public Service on April 25, 2023.

After criticism of the 2022 Razor Walker recipient, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II (D), Van Dempsey was advised to select a right-wing or Republican candidate as the recipient. Reactions from 2022 classified the university as “too left-leaning, and so was Watson College.” Sen. Lee ranked 11 out of 12 of the nominees for the Public Policy section of the awards. According to Van Dempsey, no one in the reviewing committee ranked him in their top five people to receive the award. However, after Van Dempsey met with Chancellor Volety, Sen. Lee was on the list to receive the award.

The ranking of the nominees, usually confidential to the chancellor’s and Watson’s offices by an embargo, was released after the names of the recipients became public information, approximately two weeks after the finalized nomination list. According to Van Dempsey, this led to weeks of tension and pushback to Sen. Lee’s nomination. At the ceremony, Van Dempsey expressed that both Sen. Lee and the protestors acted respectfully and in accordance with UNCW policies, and that the evening was able to proceed as planned. Van Dempsey regarded the event as a success as both sides dealt with their anger and frustration in a respectful manner.

Former Dean of Watson College of Education Van Dempsey speaks at the 2023 Razor Walker Awards Ceremony on April 25, 2023.

“Michael Lee in particular felt respected and the protestors had an opportunity to express themselves through their acts of free expression,” Van Dempsey said. “And Michael Lee had the opportunity to express himself in his remarks that he delivered that night of the ceremony.”

Van Dempsey said he believed a nomination for Sen. Lee’s work with the Isaac Bear Early College building warranted a nomination but was not a credible recipient for the award in respect to the review process. After reviewing the nomination forms, he said “there was clear pressure and expectation that a person who was seen as republican/socially conservative/ideologically right-leaning person needed to win the award as a result of the reactions to William Barber winning the award.”

Van Dempsey made it clear that the review process for nominees excludes political affiliations, but there was pressure to identify one person who was politically right-leaning as a recipient for the 2023 awards. In response to the concerns over Sen. Lee’s nomination, the Watson office encouraged the people who had raised the objections to participate in the nomination process. After recalling the pushback from the 2022 Razor Walker Awards, Van Dempsey said that night marked his eventual end of being Dean of Watson College.

“I was struck by the fact that the very people who raised concerns about the award being ideologically slanted did not nominate anyone who would have been a more balanced nominee,” Van Dempsey said. “No one who raised that concern submitted a nomination. None.”

Dozens of student protesters gather outside of the Razor Walker Awards Ceremony in opposition to Sen. Michael Lee’s nomination on April 25, 2023.

On April 26, the morning after the award ceremony, Chancellor Volety and Dean Van Dempsey received an email from Wendy Murphy, a Watson College alum and member of the Board of Governors. Murphy’s email called on Chancellor Volety to take disciplinary action against faculty that protested, including a named faculty member of Watson.

Murphy was not the only person on the UNC Board of Governors that criticized the protests that took place during the award ceremony. Woody White, an appointed member of the Board of Governors, published an op-ed in the Carolina Journal that supported Sen. Lee and called the protests “obscene.” Van Dempsey expressed frustration that the university did not respond to Murphy’s emails or White’s commentary or acknowledge the criticism in a meeting.

“I find it astounding that the university felt no need or responsibility to have a response to that, even to me as Dean of the Watson College,” Van Dempsey said.

After the awards and weeks of pushback, the university notified Van Dempsey that he was being removed from his position as dean and would be returning to his faculty position.

“Attached to that letter was a non-disparagement, that had been discussed at no point in any conversations about whether I would be the dean or not. I absolutely will not sign a non-disparagement agreement under any circumstances because it’s an act of suppressing someone’s free speech. That is when I decided to consult with attorneys.”

Van Dempsey said after he refused to sign the non-disparagement agreement, he received a letter of discontinued employment from the university stating that he would be removed as dean. The university then announced that Van Dempsey would be “leaving his position,” through email communications to The Seahawk.

“I do not believe those two things can be separated: my being removed as dean and the university and others outside the university’s discontent with my willingness to speak openly about what had happened with the Razor Award process,” said Dempsey. “This can be a chilling effect for people who might otherwise choose to engage in an act of free expression.”

In an email statement to The Seahawk, UNCW stated, “The university’s recent announcement about the leadership change in Watson College represents UNCW’s statement on this confidential personnel matter.”

Outside of the Watson College of Education building.

A protestor, parent and award-winning professor at Watson College, Dr. Caitlin Ryan shared Van Dempsey’s views about protesting and using their freedom of expression on a college campus. Dr. Ryan became known as the “leader” of the protest by informing colleagues about her dissatisfaction with hearing about Sen. Lee’s nomination. Some faculty agreed to protest the decision as well, but Ryan stated there was no formal planning. She was directly named by Murphy in her email to Van Dempsey and Chancellor Volety.

Dr. Ryan recalled the email sent from Murphy and paraphrased saying that Murphy criticized her decision to protest and should focus on teaching rather than engaging in social justice issues. Woody White’s op-ed directly mentioned Dr. Ryan and her approach to teaching and education. She acknowledged that although they do not see issues the same way, that she hopes “he will find ways to support public education and educators.”

She also shared that she wished UNCW would take more accountability and address concerns about the faculty and staff.

“I would like to see the administration of UNCW do a better job of standing up for their campus and their faculty at the state level including the trustees, Board of Governors and General Assembly,” Ryan said. “I think that the provost, the Chancellor and others have a lot of information about the good work that UNCW does and the work that faculty do…so should an individual person or a group of people have a question about ‘what are they doing down there,’ I think that’s a question that the Provost, the Chancellor and others should be able to answer easily.”

Van Dempsey and Dr. Ryan shared that college should be a place where students learn about their rights as learning professionals. Both agreed students can learn how to use their freedom of expression to support what they believe is right and that falls in line with their university code of conduct.

The Seahawk welcomes everyone’s opinions and encourages its readers to write to the editor.

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    Matt TaloneJul 24, 2023 at 9:50 pm

    Absolutely insane. The BOT and BOG have always been so right leaning and now they’re trying to push that onto a university that never had those leanings and bringing politics into education where it absolutely doesn’t need to be. Chancellor Volety and anyone involved in this decision should be ashamed of themselves for caving to the demands of right wing cry baby’s who are mad someone with different political beliefs won an award last year. The direction this university and the whole system seem to be going in is incredibly disappointing.

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  • M

    Mark VallasterJul 23, 2023 at 10:54 am

    I’m an adult student at UNCW after a long career in business. This is an embarrassing event. Chancellor Voltey should resign and Dr. Van Dempsey should be re-instated. Politics and education do not mix and peaceful protests are a first amendment right. It is likely that the Chancellor was directed by leaders in the UNC system and those that gave this direction should resign as well. Dr. Van Dempsey is a scapegoat in this politically motivated embarrassment.

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