Tuesday, March 5, 2024

UNCW pauses 2024 Razor Walker awards to review process

UNCW will pause its 2024 Razor Walker Award cycle to review the award process. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — UNCW and its Watson College of Education is taking time to review how it distributes the prestigious education honor, the Razor Walker Award, after the last award cycle received major pushback and resulted in the removal of Watson’s dean.

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

Faculty received an email on Monday from the Office of University Relations on behalf of Watson’s interim Dean Carol McNulty and Provost and Vice Chancellor James J. Winebrake announcing the decision.

“Based on collective input from WCE [Watson College of Education] faculty and staff, as well as the Chancellor’s Cabinet, we have decided to take time to review and potentially reimagine the award’s processes and procedures; therefore, we will pause the award cycle for 2024,” the release stated.

A committee of faculty, staff and other stakeholders will facilitate the review, engaging in open dialogue about the awards according to the announcement. UNCW leadership is expected to consult with the WCE leadership and others regarding the committee’s composition to have one in place for the spring semester. The goal of the committee will be to produce recommendations about the Razor Walker Awards for consideration by university leadership. 

The announcement follows a tumultuous 2023 award cycle in which New Hanover County Sen. Michael Lee took home the recognition for his work in securing funding for a permanent building for Isaac Bear Early College on UNCW’s campus.

Hundreds in the UNCW community signed a petition against Lee’s win, noting his support for the Republican-sponsored Parent’s Bill of Rights is in conflict with the award’s goals — recognizing tenacious efforts to advance education. 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, Watson Dean Van 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 to the press inside details on the 2023 Razor Walker Award nomination process, namely that UNCW Chancellor Aswani Volety pressed him to choose a conservative to receive the award. Lee received one of four awards, though a Port City Daily records request revealed the legislator ranked second to last among committee members’ nominations.

A few weeks later, the university announced Dempsey was “leaving” his position; in actuality, the dean wasn’t given the choice. The dean 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; the agreement reached has Dempsey staying on as a tenured faculty member, returning to teach in August 2024.

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