A crown jewel is tarnished
Published July 20, 2023
By Tom Campbell
I suspect conservatives have complained about liberalism on college campuses since UNC was founded in 1789.
A few of us still remember the 1963 “Speaker Ban Law,” hastily passed in the closing days of the North Carolina General Assembly. It listed three categories of persons that “forever” banned on UNC Campuses: “Known” communists, those “known” to advocate the overthrow of the Constitution, and anyone who had pled the Fifth Amendment in an investigation concerning Communism or subversion.
The reaction to this law was immediate and negative. Black and white television footages showed protests at UNC Chapel Hill, claiming it violated the First Amendment principles of free speech, but it took a federal court ruling in 1968 to finally end the Speaker Ban.
For years we’ve heard that our universities are “bastions of liberalism,” and pressures grew louder to ensure more conservative instructors were hired, more conservatives were invited to speak on campuses and have more of a voice in campus decisions.
The effort to have more conservative voices in higher education does has some merit. Surveys have confirmed what most suspect, namely that large numbers professors and ranking educators are more liberally biased. It is assumed that the more education you have, the more open-minded you will be in probing new ideas and techniques.
But the tables turned when Republican conservatives took control of our legislature in 2012 and systematically appointed members to the UNC Board of Governors who passed their conservative smell test. They fired UNC President Tom Ross, even after acknowledging he had done a good job. He was canned because he was a Democrat.
Now a recent UNC Wilmington case demonstrates the bullying has gone too far. Each year the Watson College of Education gives a prestigious honor, The Razor Walker Award, to a person who has made a difference to the children and youth of this state.
Van Dempsey, until last week the Dean of the Watson College of Education, says he was told by his Chancellor, Aswani Volety, that this year’s award should be given to a Republican. Essentially the message was “just give the award to a Republican to remove any suggestion of left-leaning on our campus, then let’s get back to work.”
Reluctantly, Dempsey and the award committee complied and named Mike Lee, who represents Wilmington in the NC State Senate, to receive the award. The reaction on campus from students and faculty was prompt and outraged, with objectors walking out of the ceremony when the award was announced.
In an interview following the ceremony, Dempsey acknowledged he had been so instructed by the Chancellor. Almost immediately, Dempsey was removed as Dean of the college. In an obvious damage control effort, the administration said Dempsey, a tenured professor, had not been fired but would no longer be the dean. His future remains unclear even now.
I don’t know UNCW Chancellor Aswani Volety, but I do know Van Dempsey. Dean Dempsey is a truth-teller, a person of integrity and an innovative and collaborative dean who has greatly elevated the reputation of his college and is well respected.
This saga is revelatory for several reasons. First, it spotlights the great pressure conservatives are applying. Politics should not be a consideration in education and those involved in the administration and application of it must be non-biased and fair-handed. Neither, however, should it be punitive.
There’s truth in the old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right. Strategies of bullying and intimidation won’t correct any perceived liberal bias. In the case of the Razor Walker award conservatives have done far more damage than any good that might have been achieved.
Additionally, we learned a lot about Chancellor Volety. There is no doubt Volety had been pressured to show more deference to Republicans and conservatives. Pure and simple: he caved, instead of standing for the integrity of the award, defending the selection process and his dean. Volety has lost the confidence of students, faculty and the public. At the least he should apologize publicly and acknowledge his mistake.
Employees of UNCW now know not to expect leadership to have their backs if they make decisions that might be considered controversial. Don’t do it. Just go along to get along. Is that any way to run a university?
Dempsey, on the other hand, demonstrated why he is a valued and principled dean. It won’t be long before an expected lawsuit will confirm that he was wrongly punished for speaking truth. State taxpayers will likely shell out many dollars in reparation.
But the biggest damage is to the university itself. When you go onto the UNCW campus you cannot help but be impressed. There have been some notable leaders in its past, along with some not so outstanding.
Founding UNC President Bill Friday often said our university system was the “crown jewel of North Carolina.” He was right. But this episode has tarnished one of those jewels.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.