WILMINGTON — A petition with more than 600 signatures will be delivered to UNCW administration Monday evening demonstrating the community’s opposition to the Watson College of Education’s recognition of a state legislator.
Authored by a group of Watson faculty members, the petition is against Sen. Michael Lee’s (R-New Hanover) receipt of the Razor Walker Award for his role in obtaining funding and support for the Isaac Bear Early College facility project.
However, petitioners argue his sponsorship of Senate Bill 49, the Parents’ Bill of Rights — dubbed North Carolina’s version of “Don’t Say Gay” bill — to prohibit teachers from encouraging conversations on gender identity, is the antithesis to the award and university’s mission. Associate professor of higher education Kevin McClure told Port City Daily the award has been a constant topic of conversation within department meetings.
The Razor Walker Award is distributed to four leaders annually for their “unwavering commitment to give North Carolina’s children every opportunity to grow up strong and healthy, to receive a high-quality education, and to become our society’s future leaders.” These people are “walking the razor’s edge” for North Carolina’s youth.
Lee and other award recipients — including Wilmington attorney LeeAnne Quattrucci, TownCreek Vision Corporation founder Willie Sloan, and the North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children — will be honored at a ceremony on April 25. Watson associate professor of language and literacy education Caitlyn Ryan said she and other colleagues plan to show opposition at the event. For her personally, she said she doesn’t want to be in the room to celebrate Lee’s win.
“I think we’re going to be very careful about following UNCW’s free speech policy; no one has any intention of doing anything that breaks any laws or even just any policies,” Ryan said.
The petitioners argue that Lee’s win in the public policy/service category is unaligned with the university and Watson College of Education’s commitment to diversity and integrity.
“My decision to kind of express concern over awarding Sen. Lee this award is on the basis of the type of school that I want for my own children in a type of environment that I want them to be able to learn in,” McClure said.
S.B. 49 passed the North Carolina Senate in February and outlines more parental curriculum oversight, tightens consent standards for students to participate in programs and surveys, and prohibits topics of gender identity, sexual activity, or sexuality from inclusion in kindergarten through fourth-grade curriculum.
The petition, authored by Ryan and her colleagues, alleges the legislation would “eliminate inclusive, age-appropriate, civic-minded learning about LGBTQ people and families, such as lessons on family diversity and anti-bullying discussions.”
“It’s one thing for just Senator Lee to propose these things,” Ryan said. “But it’s another thing for Watson and UNCW to freely choose to honor him in the exact same category where his policy is, what I think, is harming children and families.”
Ryan, who identifies as a queer woman and is the parent to a young child, has done much research on LGBTQ-inclusive children’s literature, LGBTQ-inclusive teaching in K-5, teaching for equity with children’s literature and district- and school-level English and language arts curriculum design.
She said the Parents’ Bill of Rights harkens back to outdated modes of thinking and stigmas. She explained the bill incorrectly links conversations on LGBTQ+ people with discussions of sex and sexuality; by banning these conversations, people are treated as taboo.
“We’re talking about erasing whole groups of people from public education,” Ryan said. “No one is suggesting that we do things that are above kids’ understanding, but our kids live in the world, they have their own sense of gender … it’s certainly not the focus of our entire elementary school curriculum, but to say that it would be illegal to mention it ever in elementary schools is really quite extreme.”
Lee issued a statement to Port City Daily on Tuesday addressing the petition.
“While I respect the petitioners exercising their First Amendment rights, they are intentionally misleading the public about what Senate Bill 49 does,” Lee wrote. “[Elementary school] children at that age need to be focused on learning the fundamentals. Nothing in the bill prevents students from talking about their unique family structures. To say otherwise shows a complete lack of understanding of the legislation or a willful disregard for the truth.”
A former member of the UNCW board of trustees, Lee was given the Razor Walker Award for helping to develop a long-term plan for Isaac Bear high school students, according to the winner announcement. The early college opened in 2006 as a partnership between the North Carolina New Schools Project, New Hanover County Schools and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
The winner announcement states “his leadership was central” to securing the appropriation of nearly $1 million in design funding from the North Carolina General Assembly in December 2021.
Since 2007, the 236 students from Isaac Bear have been housed in mobile units on the university’s campus. In June, UNCW dedicated an acre of land on campus for the school’s permanent home, which will allow the school to double its enrollment and provide more space for classrooms, a media center, administration offices, health services, counselor services and a cafeteria.
According to McClure, the faculty and staff’s concern is not just about Lee’s award but about how the honor is awarded in general.
“This is an award that is given out by the Watson College of Education, but my understanding of the selection process is that it does not really reflect the input or the participation of faculty and staff and the college or students in the college,” McClure said. “So it’s up to other folks to kind of decide what the recipients are.”
UNCW spokesperson Krissy Vick said the university is aware of the petition’s concerns and provided a statement from the university. It states Lee is receiving the award “for his work with the educational community, most specifically his advocacy and support of the early college partnership between the university and the New Hanover County schools, support that without his direct engagement and sustained commitment the community would not have realized.”
According to the UNCW website, anyone can nominate an individual, business, or community organization. A committee reviews the nominations; however, the UNCW website does not detail who makes up this group. McClure said he understands some past winners are part of the small committee, which ranks nominees. According to Ryan, she was told in meetings with Watson leadership the award was decided upon by Watson’s Dean Van Dempsey and Chancellor Aswani Volety after it went through the committee.
After publication, Vick told PCD the Razor Walker Reviewing Committee comprises individuals from the college and the community. It sends its nominations to the dean, who makes the decision in conjunction with the chancellor. The finalists identified are confirmed and notified, and if the nominee can attend the event, they will receive the award.
Lee was nominated by Charles Foust, superintendent of New Hanover County Schools.
Ryan first reached out in mid-March to Dempsey, Volety and Provost James Winebrake upon learning about Lee as the recipient; her original intent was to get the university to rescind the award.
After submitting an opposition statement to the three men, Ryan said she received a response the next day from the chancellor, calling it the same “boilerplate email” he was sending to other dissenters. It stressed the importance of differing opinions, and that leaders can still receive credit for their actions even if people disagree with their others.
“My position on that is, ‘Yes, except this is exactly the same category,’” Ryan said. “I’m not upset that Michael Lee has certain votes on, I don’t know, tax rates, or housing vouchers, and other things that are unconnected to the award.”
After seeing UNCW administration was not going to revoke the award, Ryan and colleagues formed the petition to make the issue “more public.” Started last week, the petition has been signed by more than 600 people, over 60% coming from UNCW students, faculty, staff, and alumni, according to Ryan.
This is not the first time a politician has been awarded the Razor Walker Award. Republican Sen. Ralph Hise was issued the honor in 2018 for his assistance in increasing funding for public schools and legislation to boost early literacy efforts, such as the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
Before he was a city council member, Clifford Barnett won the award in 2016 for his community work, including chairing the Southeastern Dropout Prevention Coalition at UNCW and as a member of the D.C. Virgo Prep Academy advisory board.
It’s also not the first time an award recipient has been criticized either, according to Ryan. She said there was some pushback from conservative voices last year against Rev. William Barber II, the former president of the North Carolina NAACP and architect of the Moral Movement. The movement started with weekly Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013, and led to a relaunch of the Poor People’s Campaign, begun by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
However, Ryan clarified Lee’s nomination is not comparable.
“This is not about capital ‘P’ politics,” Ryan said. “This is a concern about the specific policies around education that he is putting forward and how that goes against the values of education.”
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.