We’ve got more details on the ouster of Van Dempsey, the former dean of UNC Wilmington’s Watson School of Education.

Dempsey and James Winebrake, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, met June 16 – 8 days after The Assembly first wrote about tensions over an education award – to talk about him no longer being dean.  

Under the terms of a letter dated June 19, Dempsey would retain his over $200,000 salary for one year. The letter also included a non-disparagement agreement that stated Dempsey would not sue the university, its trustees, and the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system, nor make any critical comments about “job performance or behavior” of past, current or future administrators, trustees, or Board of Governor members.

“I absolutely would not sign that,” Dempsey told The Assembly and WHQR last week.

When Dempsey didn’t sign, UNCW sent a letter June 26 terminating his appointment as dean. UNCW would pay him his current salary for 90 days and agreed to discuss a faculty position as is his right as a tenured professor. The school announced last week that Dempsey was out and Dr. Carol McNulty, associate provost for undergraduate education and faculty affairs, would be taking over as interim dean.

Dempsey met with The Assembly and WHQR at his lawyer’s office last week to discuss his ouster and future plans.  He said Chancellor Aswani Volety – whom he hasn’t communicated with since the first Assembly story – was angry because he shared conversations with the Assembly spoken in “confidence” between university leadership.

“My response was things that you say that violate a set of ethical parameters are not protected by confidence,” Dempsey said.

The Assembly first reported that Dempsey claimed Volety had instructed him to make sure a conservative received a 2023 Razor Walker Award. Despite critiques of the previous year’s awards, the initial pool of nominations Volety suggested for 2023 included no conservatives, Dempsey said. Wendy Murphy, a powerful member of an Eastern North Carolina business family and the vice chair of the UNC System Board of Governors, also refused to be considered.

“While I was very honored, I felt there were other qualified individuals who had made more contributions than I at this point in my life,” Murphy told The Assembly in an email.

State Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican, was eventually nominated and given the award in February, though records from the award committee indicate he ranked near the bottom of the list of nominees. Lee’s selection sparked faculty and student protests, as he had recently sponsored controversial legislation on discussing gender and sexuality in schools.

But Dempsey and other school officials still got backlash—notably, from Murphy, who sent an email the day after the award ceremony calling the protests “disrespectful, unreasonable, and unprofessional” and demanding faculty who participated be punished. 

Murphy told The Assembly she wasn’t involved in any personnel decisions when asked about Dempsey’s ouster as dean, but acknowledged she “suggested” consequences – though she said she envisioned “training in civil discourse.”

“I am in full support of freedom of speech, however, in that particular setting, it seemed to me there needed to be civility and tolerance,” Murphy, who did not attend the ceremony, said in an email.  “We should be modeling those behaviors for our students. But that is also my freedom to give my opinion. They got to walk out, and I get to disagree with their actions.”

Volety told The Assembly earlier this month that the protest adhered to university rules, even going so far as to praise the faculty for how they handled it.

Dempsey recalled a meeting about a records request regarding the Razor Walker awards committee where he asked if any university leaders met to discuss Murphy’s email. He said UNCW general counsel John Scherer told him not that he was aware.

 “You are virtually untouchable,” Dempsey says Scherer told him in front of two staff members. “Because anything this institution does to you is retaliation.”

UNCW declined to comment on personnel matters, but did refute Dempsey’s recollection of his meeting with Scherer.

“The university is surprised and saddened that someone has chosen to fabricate a quote, legal advice, or comment by the university general counsel,” Andrea Monroe Weaver, chief marketing and communications officer, said in an email statement Wednesday. “General Counsel Scherer did not make that statement.”

Martin Ramey, one of Dempsey’s lawyers, called UNCW’s accusation irresponsible.

“The inference by the university’s communications office that Dr. Dempsey would intentionally lie or distort the truth by fabricating anything is just reckless,” Ramey said.

It is unclear what Dempsey will do next. He planned to transition out of his role as dean in 2025, and said he isn’t interested in continuing to teach. He’d rather work on education policy, he said.

“I want to take what I know, as a scholar, what I know, as a university leader, and what I know, as a person who has been in higher [education] for 32 years and start to apply that in the world a different way,” Dempsey said.

Kevin Maurer & Ben Schachtman

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A Novant Checkup

A Novant Health location in Wilmington, N.C., pictured here on May 7, 2023.

Two years ago, the New Hanover County Partnership Advisory Group promised the Cape Fear region a hospital that was a leader in care and both patient and staff satisfaction. It would serve as a regional hub for underserved and forgotten parts of the community, they said.

The 24-member advisory group that New Hanover County officials appointed determined that selling the hospital to Novant Health was the best course of action—a roughly $2 billion sale that won approval in January 2021

WHQR News Director Ben Schachtman and The Assembly reporter Kevin Maurer examined some of the biggest promises Novant made in the agreement, from $3 billion in capital improvements to merging an independent hospital with a larger system.

A Novant Checkup

It’s been more than two years since Novant Health took over New Hanover County’s community hospital. Is the company living up to its promises?

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Around the Region

 A few of the stories we’re following this week:

WHQRCity Says Thermo Fisher Layoffs Won’t Impact Campus Purchase Deal

As part of the city’s nearly-completed acquisition of the downtown campus, Thermo Fisher agreed to lease $1.8 million worth of space for three years. City officials say the company’s decision to adjust staffing levels won’t impact the agreement.

Wilmington Biz United Way-Wilmington Partnership Tackles Panhandling Problem

The city of Wilmington has launched an initiative to discourage panhandling downtown. Newly posted signs ask residents and tourists to refrain from giving handouts, advising them that “[t]here is a better way to give” and directing them to a new partnership between the city and United Way of the Cape Fear Area designed to address the needs of people who lack jobs or homes.

StarNewsWhat’s Happening At The Former Kmart In Wilmington?

Since Wilmington’s Kmart closed in 2017, its former building on South College Road has sat empty, which has been the subject of much public speculation. Developers pitched a new apartment complex for the site in October 2017, but those plans fell through. Now it’s unclear what the future holds.

Across the State

The Last Days of Papertown

For 115 years, the paper mill was central to Canton’s identity – for better or worse. Now the town must figure out what comes next.

Making A Name In Outer Banks Seafood

Vicki Basnight is carrying on the family legacy, one catch at a time.

On Storms and Stories

What draws us to write about hurricanes? This month’s books column surveys some recent fiction on storms.

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