A U.S. District Court jury in Atlanta ruled yesterday that assistant professor Jan Kemp was wrongly fired by two University of Georgia officials after she complained that student athletes received special treatment. The jury ordered that she be paid more than $2.5 million in damages.
Kemp's suit charged that she was first demoted as English coordinator of the remedial developmental studies program, then fired as an assistant professor, because she spoke out against relaxed requirements for Georgia athletes.
The jury deliberated for 10 hours over a three-day period before returning the decision that Kemp's rights of free speech had been violated by the university's vice president for academic affairs, Virginia Trotter, and director of developmental studies, Leroy Ervin, when she was fired.
The jury of five women and one man awarded Kemp $79,680 in back pay, $200,000 for mental stress, $1.5 million in punitive damages from Trotter, and $800,000 in punitive damages from Ervin. There also was a $1 award for damages to her reputation.
"It's beyond my wildest dreams," said Kemp. Her motive in suing, she said, had not been so much financial as to "clean up" academic corruption at the university in Athens, Ga.
The award must be paid from several funds operated by the university system and the state. Defense attorneys and Trotter and Ervin were unavailable for comment. Kemp's attorney, Patrick Nelson of Athens, said an appeal is expected.
State Attorney General Michael Bowers said he had not decided whether to appeal. The state has 30 days in which to file an appeal.
Nelson said the decision should have a wide impact on academic treatment of athletes across the country, not just at Georgia.
"It sends a message to all Division I-A schools that they've got to get their priorities in order," Nelson said. "That teachers who speak out against this kind of thing are going to be protected and that people aren't going to stand for academic corruption."
While the basis of the verdict was that Kemp's constitutional rights had been violated, most of the six-week trial consisted of testimony on whether athletes, as well as the children of wealthy Georgia contributors, received special treatment academically. A number of witnesses admitted that athletes were subject to relaxed requirements.
Among the disclosures were that some athletes admitted to Georgia were unable to read or write, and had scored just 400 on their college boards, the lowest possible score a student can receive, for simply signing his or her name. It also was disclosed that some athletes were promoted out of remedial classes, despite not meeting academic requirements, so they could participate in revenue-producing sports.
"I'm hoping it will have therapeutic effects nationwide," Kemp said of the decision. "I think other schools are guilty of the same academic transgressions. Maybe they'll examine their programs."
Defense witnesses testified that such treatment also was available to non-athlete students, and that the athletes needed more help because they frequently did not receive adequate education in high school. Among the defense witnesses was Vince Dooley, the football coach and athletic director.
Dooley refused to comment on the verdict itself, but said in a statement, "I would like to reemphasize . . . that throughout the entire ordeal the athletic association has been involved in no wrongdoing, nor been found in violation of any NCAA or institutional regulations."
University President Fred C. Davison said in a statement that no immediate action would be taken with regard to Georgia's student-athlete programs. But he added that he would review all testimony and hinted at changes.
"I have requested from the attorney general a complete briefing on the facts found in this case and all issues raised," Davison said. "While the glare of publicity has focused on individual statements, reasoned judgments require a complete picture. No personnel or program decisions will be made until I receive the attorney general's report."
The Georgia Board of Regents announced it would conduct an independent review of the case, as well as an audit of all the developmental studies programs at the 33 schools in the University of Georgia system. In addition, the board postponed its annual reappointment process for university presidents, 31 of whom were up for reappointment.
University officials contended during the trial that Kemp lost her job because she could not get along with her colleagues and refused to conduct scholarly research. Defense attorney Hale Almand told the jury in closing arguments Monday that Kemp's real interest was to seek revenge from the school rather than to improve it.
Plaintiff's attorney Nelson said he had been confident of the case's outcome, and had expected anything between $1 million and $5 million in damages. He urged the jury in his closing arguments to not just rule in favor of Kemp, but to make Georgia pay heavily.
"Speak to them in the only language they understand -- money," he said. "I ask you to make it hurt."
State officials expressed shock at the amount, and concern the decision would hurt the image of the University of Georgia system.
"I fainted," said Gov. Joe Frank Harris. "Seriously, I'm amazed. It appears to be excessive. I never dreamed there would be an award of that magnitude."
Kemp said she would give some of the money to her church, and some to pay her legal debts, which she estimated at about $100,000. Her immediate plans are to continue teaching at Georgia Southern College. But she has had inquiries from numerous publishers and film producers.
Davison, meanwhile, said in Athens the university will not make use of an NCAA loophole allowing admission, and three years eligibility after sitting out freshman year, of student athletes who fail to meet Proposition 48's new academic eligibility requirements.