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This Case Was One For The Books
William Nack
February 24, 1986
Jan Kemp won $2.58 million in a suit that bared academic abuses involving the athletes at Georgia
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February 24, 1986

This Case Was One For The Books

Jan Kemp won $2.58 million in a suit that bared academic abuses involving the athletes at Georgia

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She does not appear, sitting calmly in her living room in the gray light of a Georgia afternoon, anything like the roguish, steel-willed character depicted in the trial testimony the last six weeks. Nor, as she arranges herself in an easy chair by the front window of her home in Acworth, Ga., near Atlanta, does she betray any bitterness over the ordeal to which the University of Georgia subjected her.

Only once in a while, as when she talks about her two suicide attempts, or her refusal to breast-feed her infant son because she thought her milk was poison, does she reveal any of the turbulence of her life over the last four years. Her eyes fill and her voice begins to quiver, but then she takes a breath and draws on her Satin cigarette.

"On August 3, 1982, I stabbed myself in the chest with a butcher knife," Jan Kemp says. "But I lived through that. A month later, on September 3, I took an overdose of Haldol, an antipsychotic drug, but I have such a strong constitution that it didn't kill me. I had planned to commit suicide in the spring, but I was pregnant and I didn't want to harm the baby. I thought I was doing the right thing. I had become a burden to my family. I couldn't function. I was not able to do the laundry, cook a meal, read or write. I was teaching, at the time, on automatic. I never smiled. I had no personality. I couldn't see. I couldn't walk. I couldn't even understand a joke in the Reader's Digest."

To be sure, there was nothing even remotely laughable about the fact that Jan Kemp, coordinator of the English section of Georgia's Developmental Studies Program, was demoted to and subsequently dismissed from the post of remedial English teacher for speaking out against preferential academic treatment accorded athletes at the university. Or her subsequent attempts at suicide. Or her two stays in the Peachford Hospital in Atlanta. Or the lawsuit she filed challenging her demotion and firing on the grounds that the institution had violated her First Amendment right of free speech. Or all those degrading characterizations she heard people make on the witness stand in describing her, though she rather liked a journalist referring to her in print as another "Iron Magnolia," citing Rosalynn Carter's nickname.

Speaking in a voice borne along on the soft southerlies of an accent acquired in her hometown of Griffin—a languid town 35 miles south of Atlanta—she says that she is nothing like the way she was portrayed during the trial. "I'm basically a shy person," Kemp says, "but I will summon up the courage to speak out against anything that is immoral, unethical or illegal. I mean, they tried to portray me as an ogre. I admitted to being disruptive, but I said it was high time somebody was disruptive with all the corruption going on. But I was never loud. I was never profane. Let's see. All the words they used. I was never combative, arrogant, intimidating or aggressive. I'm none of those things. I'm assertive. I'm...."

But wait a minute here. Come to think of it, she concedes, there is something more than vaguely imposing about her classroom presence. "I don't have the kind of personality that lends itself to being challenged," she says. "I'm very businesslike in the classroom, and I think that some of the Bulldog athletes were intimidated by me. I'm 6'2½" and taller than most of them, for one thing, and I'm every bit as tough."

To its unending chagrin and dismay, the university quickly learned just how tough and resilient this Phi Beta Kappa with three degrees from Georgia—one of them a doctorate in English education—could be. Last week, at the end of a six-week trial during which she asked the jury of five women and one man—four blacks and two whites—for damages of more than $100,000, she and everyone else in the federal courtroom sat in stunned disbelief when the verdict was announced. The indignant jurors found on her behalf and awarded her a staggering $2,579,681.95. The breakdown: $1.5 million in punitive damages from the school's vice-president for academic affairs, Virginia Trotter; $800,000 in punitive damages from Trotter's assistant, Leroy Ervin, for whom Kemp worked and by whom she was fired; $79,680.95 in lost wages; $200,000 in compensatory damages for mental distress; and one dollar for the harm to her professional reputation. At the announcement of the judgment, Trotter's chin dropped and she was seen mouthing the words: "One point five million dollars?"

"We wanted to make a slap on the hand where they're going to feel it," said Melanie Mims, the 22-year-old jury forewoman. "There are Trotters and Ervins everywhere. There are Jan Kemps at a lot of schools."

The size of the award provoked cries of anguish among some state officials. "Good God!" blurted Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy on hearing the news. Gov. Joe Frank Harris, shaken, said simply, "It's a little excessive, unbelievable really."

By the time the jury had reached its verdict, however, the only things patently excessive were a) the ineptness of the university's presentation of its case, and b) the cynical attitude of some of its leading administrators toward what Kemp termed the university's "exploitation" of its athletes, particularly the black ones, in its use of the remedial learning program to get them into school and keep them eligible for sports.

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