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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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Cynical is a barely adequate word to describe the comments of Ervin, the head of the remedial learning program and an assistant university vice-president. In the course of the trial, a transcript of a secretly taped meeting of school officials was introduced, revealing that Ervin, who is black, had made the following statement—out of "frustration," he says—regarding the poor educational backgrounds of some of the black athletes in the remedial program:

"Now, you talk about [how] these kids are not taught in high school. They aren't. We try to teach them here, but there is no way to do it. The majority of these kids are black that are coming in, and it kind of rips in at me at the insides, and I take it very, very personal. I know for a fact that these kids would not be here if it were not for their utility to the institution. There is no real sound academic reason for their being here other than to be utilized to produce income. They are used as a kind of raw material in the production of some goods to be sold...and they get nothing in return...."

By the time those remarks became known, however, the university's case had already been seriously compromised. There are three bulldogs, former mascots of the school, buried behind one end zone at Georgia's Sanford Stadium. Joining them there, in a fourth grave, ought to be the opening argument as uttered for the ages by Hale Almand, the attorney for Ervin and Trotter. While conceding that, indeed, the university does give preferential treatment to athletes and that, to be sure, Kemp is a good teacher, Almand wrote the epitaph for his case by also saying, of the typical educationally deficient jock: "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."

University officials understandably blanched at that. Vince Dooley, the football coach and athletic director, said, "I told him [Almand] that was a terrible statement. He couldn't have done a worse thing." But matters did get worse. As a poignant footnote to Almand's statement, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported that Landy Ewings, a black football player who had gone through the remedial program and had dropped out of Georgia in 1983 after three years at the school, had taken a job working on a garbage truck in Athens, the university's hometown.

With the trial providing a continuing source of embarrassment to the university, 200 students calling themselves Students Against Campus Corruption and advocating the firing of Trotter and Ervin held a peaceful rally on Jan. 27. As the demonstrators exercised their right of free speech, a campus policeman ran around taking pictures of them. The police said the photographs were being taken "for our annual report."

Kemp, who has two children and whose husband Bill is a high school teacher, was hired by Georgia as the coordinator of the English section of the Developmental Studies Program in September 1978. The program is a well-intentioned outgrowth of affirmative action policies designed to make a university education available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Athletes comprise 17% of the program's current enrollment of about 335 students. The courses, designed to teach basic skills such as reading and writing to sometimes functionally illiterate students, do not count for credits toward a degree. Students ordinarily have four chances to pass each remedial course. If they achieve a C or better and pass a basic skills test, they are allowed to enroll in regular university courses. If they fail after four attempts, they are supposed to be dismissed from the university.

Kemp testified that she came into conflict with Ervin on three occasions, but Ervin denied it. She said that in 1981, Ervin asked her to tell an English teacher in another section to change the grades of six athletes from F to incomplete. She contended that Ervin then confronted her and berated her for refusing. "He told me he was extremely upset they had failed," Kemp testified. "He paced the floor and flailed his arms and said, 'We just can't have this.' " At one point, Kemp said, Ervin told her, "Who do you think is more important to this university, you or a very prominent basketball player?"

On another occasion, Kemp said, she had decided to press charges with the student judiciary against the son of a heavy contributor to the university after the student had called her late one night and railed at her, using profanity. She testified that she told Ervin and that, "For the next two or three weeks, Dr. Ervin harassed me endlessly, trying to get me to drop the charges. He told me how important the student was to the university." The student was found guilty and sentenced to 10 hours of public service, but the university president suspended the punishment.

The conflict came to a head in December 1981 when Trotter, a former assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, allowed nine football players to "exit" from the remedial learning program to the university curriculum, despite the fact that they had all failed their fourth and final quarter in English. The players went on to play in the 1982 Sugar Bowl, but in a position paper the athletic department said there was no wrongdoing. Trotter, a former home economics professor, admitted in court that athletes received preferential treatment at the university, but defended her action on promoting the nine students. "I felt they deserved an opportunity because of the work they had done," Trotter testified. "I felt they had made great progress."

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