By Richard Goldstein Jan Kemp, a former English instructor whose lawsuit against the University of Georgia in the 1980s drew national attention to preferential treatment of college athletes unable to meet academic standards, died on Dec. 4 in Athens, Ga. She was 59.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her son, Will, told The Associated Press.
While coordinator of Georgia’s remedial English program, Dr. Kemp was among several faculty members who had complained that officials at Georgia intervened in the fall of 1981 to enable nine football players to pass a remedial English course in which they had received failing grades. The athletes remained eligible to play for Georgia against Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day 1982.
Dr. Kemp was demoted in 1982 and dismissed the next year. She filed suit, maintaining that she had been ousted because of her complaints, a violation of her constitutional right to free speech.
In Atlanta Federal Court in January 1986, university officials defended their actions concerning the football players, saying the athletes had been admitted to the regular curriculum because they were making progress in their studies. Dr. Kemp, they said, was dismissed for disruptive conduct and for failure to conduct adequate scholarly research.
O. Hale Almand Jr., a lawyer for the defense, offered a justification for the favorable treatment accorded the athletes, citing a hypothetical player. “We may not make a university student out of him,” he told the jury, “but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbageman when he gets through with his athletic career.”
The jury found that Dr. Kemp had been dismissed illegally and awarded her more than $2.5 million (later reduced to $1.08 million) for lost wages, mental anguish and punitive damages. She was later reinstated.
The university’s president, Dr. Fred C. Davison, announced his resignation in March 1986. The board of regents of the University System of Georgia issued a report in April implicating Dr. Davison and the Georgia athletic department, headed by Vince Dooley, who was also the football coach, in a pattern of academic abuse in the admission and advancement of student-athletes over the previous four years. Both Dr. Davison and Mr. Dooley denied improper conduct, but Georgia tightened academic standards for its athletes.
Dr. Kemp, a native of Griffin, Ga., received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a doctorate in English education from Georgia, where she began teaching in 1978. She retired from her second stint as a faculty member in 1990.
In addition to her son, she is survived by her daughter, Margie Kemp.
Although Dr. Kemp was ultimately vindicated, she said she suffered emotional turmoil from the dispute and twice attempted suicide in 1982.
Notwithstanding her travails, she made her point. “
All over the country, athletes are used to produce revenue,” she told The New York Times a month after the trial. “I’ve seen what happens when the lights dim and the crowd fades. They’re left with nothing. I want that stopped.”