RALEIGH (July 6, 2023) – Dear readers, today we share the latest episodes in the ongoing saga The Political Takeover of the UNC System.
Just as the UNC Governance Commission was completing its recommendations for how to improve governance of the university system, we received fresh reminders of why those recommendations desperately need to be enacted:
FIRST, THE ASSEMBLY, a North Carolina magazine that focuses on political and cultural issues, reported last month that Van Dempsey, Dean of the Watson College of Education at UNC Wilmington, was pressured to include a Republican state senator among the recipients of the Razor Walker Awards.
The Assembly described the honor as “a feel-good award for service in education.”
Dempsey told The Assembly’s Kevin Maurer that in response to backlash over the Rev. William Barber II receiving the award in 2022, Chancellor Aswani Volety told him the award winners should include a conservative, though his office later characterized the remark as a joke.
A seven-member committee for the awards ranked Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, 11th among 12 nominees. But after the dean met with the chancellor in February to review the recipients, the senator was included on the list of four award winners.
UNCW faculty protested, noting that Lee sponsored SB49, which would ban instruction about sexuality through 4th grade, require schools to alert parents if students wish to change their pronoun, and give parents more access to student records and oversight over textbooks and school libraries. Opponents characterize the bill as North Carolina’s version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
When the awards were presented in April, several UNCW faculty members walked out of the ceremony, and a few dozen students protested outside the auditorium and chanted “Gay rights are human rights.”
The next morning, Dempsey, Volety and UNC System President Peter Hans received an angry email from Wendy Murphy, Vice Chair of the UNC System Board of Governors and former Chair of the UNCW Board of Trustees.
“To say that I am embarrassed right now would be an understatement,” Murphy wrote. “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?”
Murphy called on Volety to discipline faculty members who protested the 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,” she wrote.
Dempsey told The Assembly Murphy overreached by calling for disciplinary actions. “This is pretty clearly outside the bounds of what is a Board of Governors lane,” he said.
Speaking out could cost him his job, Dempsey said, but he said he needed to do so to create space for open discussion.
“I don’t want to be at a university that cannot effectively engage in acts of free expression,” he said. “We want universities to facilitate such discussions. A university cannot be any good if it doesn’t know how to do that.”1
On June 26, the other shoe dropped. UNC Wilmington announced that Dempsey would no longer be dean of the Watson College of Education.2
That’s no joke.
All to make a politician feel good.
THEN LAST WEEK, in a little-noticed appointments bill, the NC Senate named two Republican political consultants to university boards of trustees.
Political consultants on university boards? Hmmm… what could go wrong?
The bill naming appointees of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger placed Jim Blaine – Berger’s former chief of staff and a political strategist and consultant – on the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.3
Blaine has had a rocky relationship with his alma mater.
His bio on the firm’s website says: “After six years, Blaine left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a diploma and an agreement – which the University rescinded in 2018 when he was appointed to the UNC Board of Visitors – that he not return.”4
The same bill moved UNC trustee Dr. Perrin Jones – whose term wasn’t scheduled to expire until 20255 – to the Board of the NC Institute of Medicine.6
And the same Senate bill named Lawrence Shaheen, another Republican political consultant, to the UNC Charlotte Board of Trustees.7
With appointments like these, is there really any question that state legislators are staging a political takeover our public universities?
3 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/Senate/PDF/S754v2.pdf, Section 1.70; https://www.wunc.org/politics/2023-07-03/should-lobbyists-campaign-donors-get-appointed-to-key-nc-boards.
6 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/Senate/PDF/S754v2.pdf, Section 1.2.
7 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/Senate/PDF/S754v2.pdf, Section 1.71.