Monday, March 4, 2024

UNCW dean removed from position, lawyer said there could be legal action

UNCW announced on Monday the dean of Watson College of Education, Van Dempsey, would be “leaving his position.” (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — Another chapter has opened in this year’s contentious story over a UNCW award and local senator. 

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

UNCW announced on Monday the dean of Watson College of Education, Van Dempsey, would be “leaving his position,” effective July 14.

On a call with Port City Daily on Tuesday, Martin Ramey, Dempsey’s lawyer with Rhine Law Firm, explained Dempsey has not been fired, only will not remain dean. Yet, his future at the university — and any legal action against it — remains unclear.

UNCW’s announcement comes after Dempsey spoke on record with The Assembly, revealing the driving forces behind the controversial bestowment of UNCW’s prestigious Razor Walker Award to Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) in April. The ceremony was protested by students and Watson faculty, who staged a walk-out when Lee ascended the stage. 

In the article, Dempsey revealed UNCW Chancellor Aswani Volety told Dempsey to choose a Republican for the award, hoping to quell the view that Watson leans left in its award nominees.

Ramey insinuated Dempsey’s “demotion” was due to the article and his defense of the protesting faculty members, despite pressure from UNC board of governors member Wendy Murphy to discipline them. A condemnatory op-ed also was published in the Carolina Journal by newly elected BOG member Woody White.

“It’s very clear that the events are connected,” Ramey said.  

Port City Daily asked UNCW for the reason Dempsey was removed from his position. 

“The university will refrain from addressing specific questions about this personnel matter,” UNCW spokesperson Krissy Vick said. 

The university also noted Dempsey was not issued a dismissal letter for disciplinary reasons, but the letter he did receive is confidential.

The Assembly article reported Dempsey knew he was risking his job by speaking out, but he said he didn’t “want to be at a university that cannot effectively engage in acts of free expression.”

The dean oversees the award’s nomination committee, which recommends a cohort of local leaders who have “walked the razor’s edge” in education advocacy. Lee was nominated for securing funding for Isaac Bear Early College’s permanent facility on UNCW’s campus. 

Watson professor Caitlin Ryan started a petition against Lee’s nomination, describing his sponsorship of the Parents’ Bill of Rights — dubbed North Carolina’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics — as the antithesis to advancing education.

It was later revealed via a Port City Daily public records request that the nomination committee was not in favor of giving Lee the award. It ranked the senator second to last among 12 candidates. 

Committee members indicated Lee’s work on the Isaac Bear facility wasn’t enough to merit the award, as it is intended to recognize courage and risk in the name of advancing education, while Lee was only doing his job. Some noted the political ramifications would become a problem if Lee was chosen. 

Dempsey did not include Lee on his notice of award recipients, shared with the chancellor. Yet, the two emerged from their conversation with the senator on the awards docket, he revealed in The Assembly article. 

Now, Dempsey is set to have a different conversation on his place at the university with UNCW administration. He’s been in the dean position since he came to UNCW in 2015, hailing from Fairmont State University, where he served as vice president for institutional assessment and effectiveness. He also was employed in the College of Health and Human Resources at West Virginia University. 

The dean’s education advocacy extends beyond academia. Dempsey serves as an executive board member for Gov. Roy Cooper’s DRIVE Task Force, which stands for Developing a Responsive and Inclusive Vision for Education. Dempsey is also the director of the state’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission, which makes recommendations for the state board of education regarding all aspects of preparation, licensure, continuing education, and standards of conduct of public school educators.

“After being in education for 30 years, it’s not the exclamation mark that you want at the end of your resume,” Ramey said of the “reassignment” — which the law firm said would come under scrutiny in the months to come. 

The university has named Watson professor and associate provost for undergraduate education and faculty affairs Carol McNulty interim dean. The university plans to initiate a search for a permanent dean during the 2023-24 academic year.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailym.

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