Van Dempsey knew that talking to the press about what he described as a directive from his chancellor to give a big university award for education to a conservative could cost him.

The Dean of the Watson College of Education at University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) put both the school leadership and a member of the Board of Governors on blast earlier this month for both the award and the response to protests over it. 

He was right. Dempsey was removed as dean Monday.

UNCW released a statement on Monday announcing his departure as dean of the Watson College of Education. Dr. Carol McNulty, associate provost for undergraduate education and faculty affairs, was appointed interim dean.

“Dr. Van Dempsey is leaving his position as dean, effective July 14,” said the statement.

But Dempsey takes issue with the wording.

“It implies that I chose to leave the position,” Dempsey told The Assembly via text message. “That is not true. I did not choose to leave.” 

Dempsey declined to go into detail about his departure, referring any further comment to his lawyers. As a tenured professor, he would still remain at the university. But he made it clear it was the university’s decision, not his.

“In the months to come, this reassignment will undergo scrutiny,” his lawyer, Jim Lea, said in a statement. “This decision to replace him was in direct response to a respected academic exercising his free speech rights.”

The move comes less than three weeks after The Assembly reported that Dempsey said Chancellor Aswani Volety had instructed him to make sure a conservative received a 2023 Razor Walker Award

Dempsey said he asked Volety what would happen if they went through the award committee’s standard selection process and that wasn’t the outcome.“I would make sure you land in a good place,” Volety told him, according to Dempsey. 

State Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican, was given the award in February despite records indicating he ranked near the bottom of the list of nominees. Lee’s selection sparked protests by UNCW faculty and students, as he had recently sponsored controversial legislation on discussing gender and sexuality in schools. 

Despite Lee receiving the award, Dempsey and other school officials still got backlash—notably, from Wendy Murphy, a powerful member of an Eastern North Carolina business family and the vice chair of the UNC System Board of Governors. 

Murphy sent an email the day after the award ceremony calling the protests “disrespectful, unreasonable, and unprofessional” and demanding faculty who participated be punished. (Murphy declined to talk about the email or the awards ceremony earlier this month.) 

A university spokesperson said McNulty would not be available for an interview, and that UNCW would not comment further on a personnel matter. Lee told WHQR that he was not aware of Dempsey’s “departure,” adding, “I have always had a good relationship with Dean Dempsey and wish him well in this new chapter in his career.”

Dempsey told The Assembly earlier that he spoke out because it creates space for discussion.

“I don’t want to be at a university that cannot effectively engage in acts of free expression,” Dempsey said. “We want universities to facilitate such discussions. A university cannot be any good if it doesn’t know how to do that.”

Kevin Maurer is is The Assembly‘s Wilmington bureau chief. He is a three-time New York Times bestselling co-author and has covered war, politics, and general interest stories for GQ, Men’s Journal, The Daily Beast and The Washington Post. Email him at

More by this author