Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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

After Sen. Michael Lee recieved UNCW’s Razor Walker Award, internal documents reveal he was not in top five ranking by the nomination committee. (Port City Daily/ File)

WILMINGTON — A local senator and recipient of UNCW’s prestigious Razor Walker Award earlier this year was not favored by the nominating committee, internal documents reveal.

READ MORE: UNCW faculty, students object to award for local senator over Parents’ Bill of Rights

Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) scored second to lowest out of 12 candidates reviewed by a committee under the Watson College of Education. However, the senator, along with three others, received the distinction at an April ceremony despite protests from faculty and UNCW students. 

A public records request obtained by Port City Daily reveals the results of the committee’s votes and membership, the latter of which UNCW did not provide when asked in April. Per an email exchange provided Friday, the committee members include:

  • Candace Thompson, Interim Associate Dean in the Office of Engagement, Professional Learning, and Scholarship
  • Angela Housand, associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs
  • Nick Rhodes, business lecturer at UNCW
  • Tannis Nelson, UNCW alumna and president of the North Carolina Association of Parliamentarians
  • James Faison, district court judge
  • Wanda Marino, former New Hanover County assistant director of social work
  • Tanya Amour, director of philanthropy at New Hanover Regional Medical Center Foundation

The group was told to rank the nominees from No. 1 to No. 3 based on courage, impact, sacrifice and personal experiences as it relates to public education. 

The results show the top five candidates were Wilmington attorney LeeAnne Quatrucci, the North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children, education consultant Willie Sloan — all three of which received the award — along with UNCW professor Janna Robertson and education consultant John Meehl, who weren’t chosen.

The results were accompanied by notes on each candidate, however, it is unclear who wrote them. PCD has reached out to UNCW for clarification. 

On Lee, the writer said “I believe this nomination must be assessed and decided totally by the Dean and Chancellor.” However, Lee scored for last place among committee rankings.

Quatrucci — noted by the writer as “hands down most representative of the Razor Walker award” —  earned 15 points for her representation in adoption cases, as well as pro bono work for Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Battered Immigrants Project. She is also recognized for her former role as president of Voices Latina.

The North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children and Sloan tied with 13 points. One committee member’s notation called Sloan the “embodiment of the award.” Sloan is the founder of nonprofit Towncreek Vision Corporation. The organization leads a food pantry, a community garden, educational programs, and a workforce development program geared toward African American youth. 

Lee, a former UNCW trustee, was nominated by New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Charles Foust for his work to score funding for the permanent Isaac Bear Early College building on UNCW’s campus. The school, a partnership among the North Carolina New Schools Project, New Hanover County Schools and the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has operated in trailer units since opening in 2006.

Lee helped secure $1 million in design funding from the North Carolina General Assembly in December 2021. In June 2022, the university dedicated a piece of land to the building. 

According to the award results, Lee scored five points, tied with LS3P Associates project manager Daniela Ayers. 

Comments on the documents indicate members of the committee had concerns over nominating the legislator.

“A conflict going down a road that has political ramifications; activity was part of his job,” one comment reads from Marino.

Another from UNCW business professor Nick Rhodes states Lee “shouldn’t be rewarded RW for securing the building funds.” Candace Thompson, a department chair in Watson, remarked his “sole accomplishment is getting the funding for IBEC.” 

The result document notes that there were multiple concerns about Lee’s nomination, but there are times when elected officials should be recognized for their contributions. 

“This is most especially true when the elected official is the Chair of the State’s legislative body responsible for proposing funding to higher education,” the writer said.

They also wrote that, while the nomination was based on funds for the IBEC building, the award seeks those who have demonstrated a “consistent pattern of commitment.”

Watson Dean Van Dempsey’s notes from a January review meeting reveal after the committee members identified their top five, he would identify up to five recipients for the award based on the aggregate data and share the choices with Chancellor Aswani Volety. Awardees that can attend the ceremony are then given the award. 

While five recipients could be chosen, only four were this year, leaving two top-fivers in the cold. Former education professor Robertson was nominated for the creation of a dropout prevention program in New Hanover County Schools and collaboration on community art programs in underserved areas. Some expressed concern her work was part of her faculty position, though the writer noted she went “above and beyond.”

Meehl is board president of the Hill School of Wilmington, a special education academy, and former headmaster of the private Cape Fear Academy. He has also supported the literacy council and book drives for Title I schools. 

However, the writer wrote his nomination letter did not demonstrate fully realized examples of courage, impact or vision. 

After the award’s nominations were released in early April, rumors began swirling the chosen recipients differed from the recommendations of the committee and a group of Watson professors created a petition in protest of Lee’s award. The professors that spoke with Port City Daily said they were unclear on how the nomination process worked and were dismayed at Lee’s nomination. 

Professor Caitlin Ryan and her colleagues authored the petition, arguing the lawmaker’s 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 of gender identity, is the antithesis to the award and university’s mission. 

The petition states the legislation, which passed the Senate and awaits a House vote, 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 to PCD in April. “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 and others organized a small, free speech policy-compliant protest at the award ceremony April 2; it was met by more overt dissent from university students outside UNCW’s Burney Center. 

UNCW administration largely remained silent on the issue, at the time telling PCD Lee was awarded for 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.”

Aside from the Isaac Bear funding, Lee has pushed for other forms of funding for UNCW, including a consecutive addition of $8 million in the Senate’s budget proposal. The university plans to use the money for critical workforce career, lab-intensive and clinical programs in STEM and healthcare as the university undergoes a division of its College of Arts and Science, essentially splitting the former from the latter.

[Ed. note: The piece has been updated to reflect Candace Thompson is the Interim Associate Dean in the Office of Engagement, Professional Learning, and Scholarship. It has also been updated to reflect Wanda Marino retired from her post at the county in 2019.]


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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