Georgia Tries to Recover From the Kemp Trial : University Lost Face, $2.5 Million Decision in Case That Shook College Athletics
If you could put together a scenario of the worst things that could possibly happen, this would be it. --D.W. Brooks, member of University of Georgia Board of Regents.
Jan Kemp blew the whistle on classroom pandering to athletes at the University of Georgia and lost her job and very nearly her life.
However, the soft-spoken but spirited English professor withstood a trip “to hell and back” and now looks forward to life as a millionaire and television star.
The instant wealth and fame for Kemp, who still works as a $28-a-week tutor at a community college, comes at the expense of Georgia and big-time college athletics.
“It may be,” said B. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the American Assn. of University Professors, “the enormity of the situation at the University of Georgia is only the tip of the iceberg.”
For her part, Kemp hopes her stunning courtroom victory over the University of Georgia prompts the nation’s educators to look below the surface.
“I didn’t do it for the money,” said Kemp, 36, who was awarded $2.5 million by a jury but has yet to see a penny because the university has appealed the verdict. “What’s important to me is that the message gets out and the abuses stop. Not only at the University of Georgia but nationwide.
“The publicity is hard on me personally because I’m a private person, but if it cleans up academics in this nation, I can stand it.”
She is learning to enjoy it, too.
Kemp, who borrowed $40,000 from relatives to keep her family going during the trial, hopes to build a new sanctuary for her church and finance the graduate school education of a former student who also testified for Kemp during the trial.
A book is in the works and a national speaking tour is scheduled. Plans also call for a made-for-TV movie.
Who might play the lead role of Kemp, a tall (6 foot 2) Georgian with a pleasant drawl?
“There have been a number of actresses named, but I don’t even know who they are because I don’t watch much television,” said Kemp, sitting in the living room of her home in Acworth, Ga., 30 miles northwest of Atlanta. “I watch nothing but the news and ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ ”
Indeed, a highlight of a recent trip to Hollywood for Kemp was the opportunity to meet “Wheel” host Pat Sajak.
“That was fun,” Kemp said.
But fun was not a good way to describe Kemp’s battle with the University of Georgia--her employer and alma mater.
There were anonymous death threats, late-night obscene telephone calls, harassment from her superiors and finally her dismissal from the teaching staff in 1982.
Kemp said the collapse of her career led to the darkest period of her life. Soon after losing her job, Kemp plunged a butcher knife repeatedly into her chest. A month later, she swallowed an overdose of drugs. There were two stays in a psychiatric hospital before she put her life together again.
Toughened by her personal trauma and angered by the memories of her experience at Georgia, Kemp summoned the courage to fight. When university officials refused a settlement, Kemp took them to court.
In February, at the end of a six-week trial, she won.
How strange this whole drama has been.
Not only did a virtually anonymous, non-tenured professor fight back against the university hierarchy, she dropped both gloves and pummeled.
So strong was her fight and so harsh the accompanying outcry against Georgia’s reputation that Fred Davison, the university’s iron-fisted president for nearly two decades, resigned.
The whole mess prompted an outpouring of outrage from Georgians--those appalled at what the Kemp trial revealed and those disgusted with what they viewed as overblown publicity that landed an ugly black eye on the face of the university.
“If you could put together a scenario of the worst things that could possibly happen, this would be it,” D.W. Brooks, one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta and a member of the University of Georgia board of regents, told UPI. “Fred (Davison) is a fine man and he built the university from almost nothing. You just can’t believe that he could get in so much trouble.”
Letters to the editors filled the pages of newspapers not already taken by news accounts or editorials of the Kemp case. It was the topic of discussion in bars and on the streets.
All of this without any of the glamorous illegalities usually associated with athletic scandals. There were no under-the-table payments, no new cars purchased by overzealous boosters, no $100-handshakes and no drug abuse.
The Kemp case focused on the classroom--a relatively obscure one at that.
Kemp, a self-proclaimed “Bulldog fan” who didn’t miss a football game for 15 years, began teaching at Georgia in 1978 in the developmental studies program, a remedial curriculum set up for a small percentage of the university’s 25,000 students not up to the college level.
Her suit charged she was wrongly dismissed in 1982. University officials claim Kemp was fired because she was a poor teacher.
But the spotlight quickly zoomed in on developmental studies and the athletes, who made up 20% of the classes.
Kemp shook the very foundation of higher education with reports of grade-changing, admission of illiterate athletes and the classroom promotion of undeserving football players simply so they could play on Saturday afternoons.
The university’s case was not helped by the names of some of the classes--"Insects and Man,” “Safety in Sports and Recreation” and “Industrial Arts and Handicrafts.”
Such questionable classes and practices are not new. They have been around since college students started playing organized games. But never before had the public and maybe even officials of higher education been treated to such a revealing look behind the scenes.
An investigation by state officials turned up a wide range of irregularities as Kemp’s charges rang true about preferential treatment for athletes.
The audit, made public in early April, submitted the simple but indicting bottom line that some athletes were admitted into the University of Georgia with no hope of ever receiving a diploma and enrolled in low-level courses that would keep them eligible to play but never lead to graduation.
Some of the comments university administrators used to defend themselves drew as much attention as the factual disclosures in the Kemp case itself.
“If (athletes) leave us being able to read, write, communicate better, we simply have not done them any harm,” Davison said during the Kemp trial.
Football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley blamed many of Georgia’s problems on the NCAA for setting academic standards too low.
One of the more controversial statements came from Hale Almand, the attorney for the two administrators sued by Kemp, who said, “We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.”
The AAUP’s Kreiser said reaction to the Kemp case would have been loud anyway, but the “intensity was heightened by the way the university handled itself.”
Said Kemp, “We were absolutely floored.”
It is hard to say just what led to the special treatment of athletes at Georgia.
Some say it was pressure from the athletic department; others say it was pressure from the president. Some say it was simply bad judgment on the part of academic administrators. Everyone is pointing fingers, but no one is taking the blame.
Whatever the case, one thing is for sure. There’s no way Georgia stands alone.
“I believe . . . it is a particularly egregious example of what probably is a national phenomenon,” said the AAUP’s Kreiser. “I think a lot of professors resent having the athletic tail wagging the academic dog.”
In Davison’s mind, powers outside universities sour the academics-athletics mix.
“I think the first place it goes wrong is when a large segment of the population gets out of the hands of the institution,” said Davison, sitting in his campus office in Athens, Ga. “I’m talking about the fans.
“Now, I love good fans and there’s nothing wrong with loyalty and all that, but there are some people who turn being a fan into a total avocation. The institution is not powerless, but it certainly has difficulty controlling that type of super-dedicated person.”
Pressures exerted by boosters create headaches for college coaches and administrators, who do not wish to alienate such supporters but also do not want any rules broken--no matter how well-intentioned.
Those rules are part of the problem, Davison contends. The book of NCAA regulations is inches thick and convoluted to the point of confusion. Too much time is spent worrying about the trees and not the forest, he said.
“It’s a great case of starting out with some good solid rules, like the Ten Commandments, but then trying to write an interpretation of every possible variation,” said Davison, a maverick administrator who made headlines several years ago by leading Georgia and Oklahoma University in a lawsuit against the NCAA’s stronghold on television rights and the freedom of member institutions. The result was the birth of the College Football Assn. and a whole new era in college football on TV.
“Those rules have come down to being ridiculous,” Davison said. “I think the whole thing needs to be redone.”
The NCAA’s biggest mistake, in Davison’s opinion, was agreeing in 1974 to allow high school students with only a 2.0 grade-point average to receive an athletic scholarship.
There was talk among university presidents of raising the standards but no one wanted to step out of line and find themselves alone.
Davison said Georgia refused to “disarm unilaterally” by raising entrance requirements for athletes because, “we have to compete on a level playing field.”
Virginia Trotter, vice president for academic affairs and developmental studies director Leroy Ervin were the two administrators targeted by Kemp’s lawsuit. Trotter recalls confronting Davison with news that several football players would be dismissed from school for academic reasons. Davison said such actions place the university in a non-competitive position, according to Trotter.
“What do you want us to do? Play high school football?” Trotter recalled Davison saying.
Davison denies applying pressure to admit or promote any students, including athletes. However, he admits college administrators nationwide have done a poor job using the popularity of athletics to academic benefit.
“One of the things we’ve failed to do is . . . use the athletic programs as a carrot to demand higher academic performances in high school,” Davison said.
Davison hopes new NCAA entrance standards enacted this year will begin pressuring high schools to better prepare potential college student-athletes.
But Kemp believes the sources of the problems occupy offices at universities across America.
“The problem is when college administrators are motivated by greed for the sake of gaining revenue for the university and in some cases for their own pocketbooks,” said Kemp, whose teaching these days is limited to one day a week at Southern Technical Institute in Marietta, Ga.
“They will admit athletes who have no business at the university. Every athlete I ever taught at the university thought he was going to get two things--a diploma and a pro contract. Most get neither.
“These (athletes) are used and they don’t even know it,” Kemp said. “They won’t realize it until their eligibility is up and they’re no longer players. Then they realize their lives have been ruined. It is not in the best interest of the athlete because they lose their self-esteem and I know what happens to a person when he loses self-esteem.”
Kemp complained when athletes were promoted without doing the work. She was chastised--"Dr. Ervin screamed at me one day that I was being ‘provincial,’ ” Kemp recalls. “I said, ‘Use provincial if it makes you happy, but I prefer to use honest.” She was demoted and finally dismissed.
Despite 23 calls to Davison’s office and two letters, Kemp said she was never allowed to speak with the president.
A general feeling persisted among some Georgia faculty members that Kemp was just another in a line of professors who rocked the boat and were run off. Feuds between Davison, credited with helping Georgia evolve from a sleepy Southern university into a major research institution, and the faculty have been numerous.
There also is a general belief Davison wielded too much power and ran afoul of Georgia’s political machine.
“The Kemp trial and the things it brought out are typical of the things that have dogged Davison’s administration,” said Pete McCommons, editor and publisher of “The Athens Observer” weekly newspaper and a former Georgia professor who was dismissed after participating in a peaceful student rally at Davison’s office in 1972.
“The style of his administration has been heavy-handed intolerance of any dissent,” McCommons said. “There is widespread resentment of Davison among the faculty. It is ironic that it took developmental studies and football to bring it to a head.”
There is no way to tell exactly what effect the Kemp case will have on the University of Georgia or other universities.
Although one Georgia official said the university’s image has been set back five years, there has been no decline in contributions or freshmen applications. In fact, both are running at record paces. Letters of support are running 25-to-1 over critical correspondence.
“Obviously, this has not done the University of Georgia any good,” said Barry Wood, a school spokesman. “I know it’s not positive, but I don’t know if you can say it’s damaging. So far, we haven’t seen signs of permanent damage.”
There is evidence developmental studies is being cleaned up.
Four athletes, three of them football players, were recently dismissed from school for academic reasons. All had been enrolled in the developmental studies program and all would still be around if not for the Kemp case, some observers said.
Said Ruth Sabol, head of the remedial English program, “At any time previous to now an administrative exit (promotion into the regular curriculum) probably would have been the case.”
Henry Williams, a starting defensive tackle last season, was one of those dismissed. He failed to pass a remedial math course within the required four quarters.
“I got caught up in the system,” Williams said. “I think the system for several years was about to burst. By the time I got here, it did burst, and I got caught in the bubble.”
Kemp recalls that many athletes believed they could get away with little or no work and still pass.
“The athletes would make remarks in class like, ‘Well, I don’t have to do that. Dr. Ervin will take care of me,’ ” Kemp said.
That attitude apparently is on the way out.
“The trial gave us a bad name,” said James Jackson, a quarterback for the Bulldogs. “Since the verdict, everybody has started to buckle down around here. When we make small talk among one another, it’s something like, ‘How are your grades?’ or ‘When’s your next test?’ That’s not the way it has always been. This trial has made us more aware of what we have to do.”
Kemp also hopes her victory has helped university officials see what they have to do, namely an administrative house-cleaning.
However, she fears the board of regents will end the developmental studies program, which she calls a “fine program” that helps the vast majority of students who go through it.
“That would be throwing the baby out with the bath-water,” Kemp said.
There is no fear athletics will take a backseat at Georgia or anywhere else, although Davison says flatly, “If our sponsoring society does not want athletics at this institution, they can close us down tomorrow. All they have to do is quit buying tickets.”
Another trial is a possibility, since the verdict and hefty award have been appealed. The state made overtures about a settlement, but its offer of less than $1 million was quickly turned down by Kemp and her attorneys.
Kemp says the jury award, with interest, is now close to $3 million and her starting point for negotiations keeps rising.
The prospect of another trial does not bother her. In fact, her courtroom victory and the ensuing national attention provided quite a rush.
“I had a great time at the trial,” she said. “I’d love to go back.”