Dean of UNCW Watson College of Education frustrated with replacement process

Dempsey says he wants to see more accountability -- and transparency from the university.
Published: Jun. 28, 2023 at 6:36 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 5, 2023 at 5:16 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Dr. Van Dempsey will leave his position as the dean of UNC Wilmington’s Watson College of Education on July 14, according to an announcement from the university. Dempsey, however, says he is frustrated with how the process has been handled.

Dempsey’s attorneys, Jim Lea and Martin Ramey, said Dempsey’s replacement comes after this year’s Razor Walker Awards ceremony in April, where a group of protestors walked out in opposition to an award being presented to Republican State Senator Michael Lee.

“As a result of that, less than two months later, we’re at this point, which is where Dr. Dempsey is being demoted, essentially, from dean back to a faculty position, or at least that’s what’s been offered, and we’ll have to see where that that shakes out,” said Ramey.

Dempsey maintains that he was not a part of that protest, but his attorneys believe his demotion stems from the controversy.

Dempsey says UNCW Chancellor Aswani Volety approached him and said he wanted to make sure a conservative won a Razor Walker Award this year. While Lee was ultimately chosen as one of this year’s recipients, a petition signed by hundreds of people called for Lee’s award to be rescinded because he is a sponsor of Senate Bill 49, also known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

If signed into law, the legislation would require teachers to notify parents of any time a child asks to use a different name or pronoun and prohibit instruction on sexuality in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Dempsey’s attorneys say Dempsey was not involved with the protest.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with partisan politics or anything like that. This is about right and wrong, period,” said Lea.

Following the ceremony, Ramey says an email went out to UNCW administrators calling for disciplinary action to be taken against faculty who protested against Lee receiving the award. Ramey says that the email came from a member of the UNC System’s Board of Governors.

“That email came from someone’s personal email address that is a member of the Board of Governors,” said Ramey. “That email is very serious. We believe that in response to that, the actions that then transpired, including an article by another person, you know, created a situation where those two events caused some dissatisfaction with the way that things have been handled.”

No legal action has been filed regarding Dempsey’s removal and replacement as dean. Ramey says he and Lea met with school officials Wednesday to discuss the transition.

“There are three groups or people that we would all agree are innocent in this,” said Lea. “One, for sure, is Van Dempsey. That’s for sure. This should not be happening to him at all. Number two is the faculty that decided to walk out in protest because they did it because of their free speech rights and what they believed in their hearts was right and that’s okay. And number three is Michael Lee. He won an award. He came to accept it. And he doesn’t have a dog in this fight either. But there are some other people out there that do have a dog in this fight apparently, and they have acted inappropriately in our opinion.”

Dempsey says he wants to know more about why he is being replaced.

“This is not about interpersonal dynamics or interpersonal confrontational issues,” Dempsey said. “This is about, in my mind, holding the university to be responsible for what are the best ways for the university to govern itself and make decisions and I do have frustrations with the way that has happened.”

WECT reached out to UNCW to ask if Volety or other administrators were available to comment on Dempsey’s concerns.

His salary was $205,991 at the time of his departure, which had grown from $165,000 when he first was hired in 2015. The University says it didn’t issue a dismissal letter to Dr. Dempsey.

“The university does not plan to comment further on this personnel matter. Thank you for checking,” a spokesperson said.