Van Dempsey, the dean of the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), knew once Sen. Michael Lee was nominated for a 2023 Razor Walker Award that the Republican from New Hanover County would win.
It didn’t matter that the awards committee had ranked Lee, an alum, near the bottom of the nominees it considered. Months before, Chancellor Aswani Volety had instructed Dempsey to make sure a conservative got the award this year.
What Dempsey didn’t anticipate was that he’d still face 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.
Dempsey manages the annual Razor Walker Awards, which recognize organizations and individuals who have “distinguished service to the children and youth of North Carolina.” Lee’s nomination was submitted by New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, who praised the state senator for his work in securing $1 million in funding for a Wilmington high school that offers college-level courses.
UNCW students and faculty met Lee’s selection with skepticism and protest, as it came in the wake of him sponsoring the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” legislation that prohibits instruction on sexuality before fourth grade, requires schools to inform parents of a student’s change in gender identity, and gives parents more oversight on things like textbooks and school library records.
While the April 25 award ceremony drew some protests from students and faculty, Dempsey still thought it had gone well overall.
That is, until he received an email from Murphy the following morning.
“To say that I am embarrassed right now would be an understatement,” Murphy wrote to Dempsey, Volety, and Peter Hans, president of the UNC System. “How in the world did we get to a place in our society where freedom of speech means you can be disrespectful, unreasonable, and unprofessional?”
In a four-paragraph email obtained by The Assembly, Murphy—who did not attend the ceremony—demanded punishment for those who protested.
“The thing that I would never have thought was coming was the Wendy Murphy email,” Dempsey told The Assembly a month after the awards ceremony. “I sort of walked away from this thinking I did the best I could, and I got screwed either way.”
Murphy declined to talk about this year’s awards with The Assembly, saying she does not “have anything to add” and wants to keep her focus “on the preparation of future teachers.”
The battle over the Razor Walker Awards is just the latest in ongoing tension within UNCW over accusations of censorship and political bias. In 2020, Professor Mike Adams successfully sued the school for violating his right to free speech (he died by likely suicide a few months later). In 2021, a UNCW professor posted calls for violence against Republicans online and retained his position. And former Chancellor Jose Sartarelli had long ruffled feathers among left-leaning faculty with his more conservative views.
That fight has now tipped over into what’s supposed to be a feel-good award for service in education.
The fight over 2023’s awards began in 2022, when the annual award was given to civil rights leader Rev. William Barber II, First Lady Kristin Cooper, and Wilmington native Maj. Gen. Joseph McNeil.
Dempsey says he was told that after the awards ceremony, Murphy expressed outrage at Barber’s award and voiced her concerns to then-Chancellor Sartarelli at a Board of Governors meeting.
When Chancellor Volety took office later that year, Dempsey says the chancellor pressed upon him the importance of a conservative receiving the award in 2023 “given the concerns and frustrations that had been voiced about the [Watson] College being too leftist and that conservatives never win the award.”
Dempsey says he questioned Volety about ensuring that credible people were nominated who had done work consistent with the intent of the award and who might also be on the political right.
“What if we just simply can’t engage in the process in a way that that’s the outcome?” Dempsey recalled asking Volety.
“I would make sure you land in a good place,” Volety told him, according to Dempsey.
Volety denied instructing Dempsey to include a conservative on the awards list in response to questions from The Assembly, stating that the Watson School dean oversees the awards process from start to finish.
However, when UNCW officials contacted Dempsey last month regarding a records request for this story, the dean said they discussed Volety’s comment about giving the award to a conservative and told him that the chancellor was joking.
Dempsey told The Assembly he found no humor in the comment. His takeaway was that if he couldn’t fulfill the directive, Volety would find a dean who could.
The seven-member awards committee included UNCW staff, a district judge, and nonprofit and local government officials. There were about a dozen nominees this year, from both sides of the political spectrum, which the committee assessed and ranked based on criteria such as courage, impact, sacrifice, and public education experience.
The top five candidates, according to the award committee’s records, included:
- LeeAnne Quattrucci, a Wilmington lawyer recognized for her work with Legal Aid and as president of Voces Latinas
- The North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children, a nonprofit organization that pays for school supplies and disaster relief support
- Willie Sloan, the founder of Towncreek Vision Corporation, a nonprofit that provides education and workforce development programs for Black youth
- UNCW professor Janna Robertson, acknowledged for her work on dropout prevention
- John Meehl, former headmaster of the Cape Fear Academy, nominated for his role as president of the Hill School for students with learning disabilities
Lee placed 11th out of 12 candidates in the committee’s rankings, according to university documents The Assembly obtained through a records request (which Port City Daily first reported on). Scorers questioned whether his efforts to secure funds to build the Isaac Bear Early College building on UNCW’s campus were worthy of the recognition. To committee members, that seemed like simply fulfilling his responsibilities as an elected official.
“The [Razor Walker] award seeks those who have demonstrated a consistent pattern of courage, sacrifice, tenacity, vision, and impact in the service of children and youth,” one review committee member wrote. “Working on behalf of constituents is what is expected of one’s senator. Therefore, [I] believe this nomination must be assessed and decided totally by the Dean and Chancellor.”
In February 2023, Dempsey and Volety met to review the final selections. In previous years, Dempsey said, the chancellor’s office received the list in advance via email and never made any changes. The list Dempsey submitted did not include Lee among the top five choices, he said.
But when the dean left Volety’s office, Lee was among the four winners of the 2023 Razor Walker Award, alongside Quattrucci, Sloan, and the North Carolina Foundation for Public School Children.
In an email statement, Volety told The Assembly that Lee deserved the award, pointing to his seats on influential education boards and commissions and his support of the university and New Hanover County schools.
But soon after Lee’s award was finalized in February, he became one of a trio of sponsors of Senate Bill 49, the Parents’ Bill of Rights. The controversial bill passed along party lines in February and is currently awaiting consideration in the House. It has sparked anger from educators, advocates, and parents who liken it to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
When this year’s award recipients were announced in April, UNCW faculty members balked at Lee’s inclusion and organized a petition and a walkout; students also held a protest outside the Burney Center during the ceremony. Students chanted “Gay rights are human rights” and cheered when faculty members left Lee’s speech in protest, according to news reports.
Witnesses told The Assembly that during Lee’s speech, a small number of faculty members got up and left in protest. Lee acknowledged the protest during his speech and expressed a desire to hear their side of the issue. Both Dempsey and Volety said they were satisfied with how the ceremony went and did not take issue with the protest.
“I left that night feeling like we had gotten to a better place,” Dempsey said. “I won’t say a good place, but I think the protesters felt in the moment heard. I think Michael Lee tried to speak to the protesters. He was, I thought, respectful. And then the ceremony continued, and we were done.”
Volety said he spoke with Lee, who was “supportive of the university’s handling of the situation and the individuals’ right to express themselves.” Volety said the protest didn’t violate the university’s guidelines.
“The protesters did not substantially or materially disrupt the ceremony or its speeches,” Volety said. “I was proud of many members of the UNCW community for navigating the complicated space that public discourse often occupies with a significant amount of grace under pressure.”
Murphy’s email arrived at 10:27 a.m. the next morning.
Murphy’s email called on Volety to take disciplinary action against faculty who protested Lee’s award.
“Those individuals who walked out when Senator Lee received his award should be ashamed, and there should be consequences if they are employees of our university,” Murphy wrote. “How can we expect students to conduct themselves in a civil way if our role models are behaving in this manner?
“I look forward to hearing how the university handles individuals who behaved in such an embarrassing manner and put us in a negative spotlight,” she continued.
After reading the email, Dempsey sent a text to Volety informing him that he had received it and forwarded it to his direct boss, the university’s provost, as well as Dr. Caitlin Ryan, an associate professor who helped organize the protest and was mentioned by name in the email. Except for a call from the provost to check in, Dempsey said he hasn’t heard of any actions the university has taken.
In a statement to The Assembly, Volety said Murphy’s email came from a place of “care and commitment” for the school. UNCW has not taken any disciplinary action, nor does it plan to change the way it conducts the Razor Walker Awards process, Volety said.
“At this point in time, we plan to continue recognizing members of our community who advance education,” Volety said.
But Dempsey says he interpreted Murphy’s email as an attack on the university and the faculty. The language in the email calling for disciplinary action and singling out a faculty member went beyond just criticism in Dempsey’s opinion.
“The email itself has the language about ‘these people should be disciplined,’” Dempsey said in an interview. “This is pretty clearly outside the bounds of what is a Board of Governors’ lane.”
Dempsey acknowledges that speaking out on the record may cost him his job, but said he believes doing so is necessary to create a space for constructive discussions at the university.
“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.”
Correction: The spelling of New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust has been fixed in this story.