Sunday, July 21, 2024

Former UNCW dean staying on after demotion, settles retaliation dispute with university

UNCW has settled a dispute with the former dean of the Watson College of Education. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON — The former dean of UNCW’s Watson School of Education has settled his dispute with the university over his removal from the leadership position in June. 

READ MORE: NDA not an option for ousted dean, UNCW claims no retaliation

ALSO: Sen. Michael Lee ranked second to last but still received UNCW award, documents show

Van Dempsey will stay on as a faculty member and return to teaching in August 2024, according to the terms of employment set forth in the settlement agreement. In the meantime, he’ll prepare for his upcoming courses and research load, retaining his dean salary until June 30, 2024.

University leadership unseated Dempsey from the deanship after he revealed to the press inside details on the 2023 Razor Walker Award nomination process. Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) received one of four awards, though the legislator ranked second to last among committee members.

A recognition for tenacious efforts to advance education, the Razor Walker Award winners were announced in April. Hundreds in the UNCW community signed a petition against Lee’s win, noting his support for the Parent’s Bill of Rights is in conflict with the award’s goals. At the April awards ceremony, several Watson faculty walked out during Lee’s recognition while students led a protest outside.

In the wake of the event, Dempsey defended his colleagues’ right to protest after UNC System board of governors vice-chair Wendy Murphy pressed university leadership to discipline them. 

Dempsey also revealed Chancellor Aswani Volety pressed him to choose a conservative for the award. These details were published in The Assembly on June 8. Several weeks later the university announced Dempsey was “leaving” his position; in actuality, the dean wasn’t given the choice. 

Dempsey then hired Rhine Law Firm, which issued a statement stating the “demotion” was retaliation for speaking to the press, despite Dempsey’s First Amendment right to do so. The firm has spent the summer negotiating Dempsey’s place at the university. 

“I felt like under the conditions we arrived at that I could move on, and I’m assuming the university feels the same way because we both agreed in the final version,” Dempsey said to Port City Daily on Monday. 

The university refused to provide PCD with the formal agreement, reasoning it would violate the North Carolina Human Resources Act. State law mandates some personnel information, including salary, contract terms, and promotion and demotions, are public record. 

The contract, provided by Rhine Law Firm with Dempsey’s consent, states “UNCW and its agents deny any liability as to conversations and communications related to the Razor Walker award and to allegations/unfiled claims.”   

When he talked with PCD in July, Dempsey said a non-disparagement agreement was part of the university’s original condition. He refused to sign it, calling it “another effort on the university’s part to suppress speech and free expression.”

That requirement was removed from the final contract. 

The agreement does not prohibit Dempsey from discussing events leading up to his demotion, nor make any grievance against the university in the future. He clarified he will still use his voice about important issues in public education because that’s his job, but he stressed his intent was never to denigrate the university. 

“I don’t like the word ‘disparagement’ because that suggests to me some kind of intention,” Dempsey said on Monday. “What I have tried to do all the way through this process is, as people have asked me questions, and as people like you in journalism and media, have asked me questions about what has happened, I tell them what I perceive to be and what I believe is an authentic and legitimate accounting of what has occurred all the way back to the beginning. It’s not my intent to be disparaging.” 

Ultimately, Dempsey is ready to put the last few months behind him. 

Under the same process as any other dean that decides to retire or step down, Dempsey will retain his $205,991 salary until June 30; then his pay will reduce to $110,000 for a nine-month period under a tenured full-time faculty position.

He plans to spend the next eight months preparing for the year, and having conversations with Watson leadership about what courses Dempsey will teach and where his research work can best be placed. Dempsey focuses on social and cultural foundations of education, which has led him down the path of education policy. 

As for his future at UNCW, the professor assured he was not waiting to announce a new position at another university. Moving back to a faculty position will be the first time in 25 years where that role is his primary identity; he also would still like to participate in work that will inform and benefit educators in the region.

“While I was in the dean’s role, I’ve looked for ways to leverage how being a dean in the Watson College of Education at UNCW could complement and intersect with opportunities and ways that we can inform that work in the state of North Carolina,” Dempsey said. “Hopefully, I will continue to be able to do work that helps inform the policy decisions in the education profession, in particular the teaching profession, in North Carolina.”

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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