March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

If you break a bad habit once, sometimes you break it forever. Take remedial English specialist Jan Kemp, 36. She used to be shy. Then one day, because she felt she had to, she said something. Loudly. She suffered for it, but now she is on her way to New York to talk about a book and to L.A. to discuss a TV movie. And the University of Georgia sports establishment is dusting itself off after the assistant professor sacked it in court for a $2.6 million loss.

No one can accuse Kemp of not liking either the university or its football team, the Bulldogs. Born in Griffin, outside Atlanta, Kemp earned all three of her degrees—including her 1979 doctorate in English education—from Georgia, and she met her husband, Bill, a high school teacher, in the student union’s Bulldog Room in 1969. In 1980 she attended every game the Dawgs played, including the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the farthest west she’d ever been. Nor did she have any objection to tutoring athletes in the school’s remedial “developmental studies” program, of which she became coordinator at a $16,000-a-year salary in 1978. Herschel Walker, the star running back of that era, “had a near-photographic memory,” she would remember. “And his poetry was magnificent.”

But what Kemp did object to was that other promising athletes—or the children of wealthy donors and prominent politicians—were allowed into the school despite miserable test scores and then given extra quarters to pass the required work, or given passing grades in courses they were failing—at least until they exhausted their usefulness in sports. “Then the lights dimmed, and the crowd faded,” she says, “and they were left with nothing.”

The situation became intolerable during the 1981 football season. Ten remedial students, nine of them football players, earned Ds in their fourth attempt to pass a remedial English course. School rules required at least a C to avoid expulsion. Dr. Virginia Trotter, the university’s vice-president for academic affairs, was responsible~ for raising the athletes’ inadequate grades, enabling them to play in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1982. Only the nonathlete in the group was expelled.

Kemp was appalled. “I went home for the Christmas holidays,” she says. “I discussed it with my family. I prayed about it. My parents had always taught me that when faced with a dilemma like this to be sure you’re right and then hit it head on.” She was sure. “That kind of academic corruption calls for the strongest words,” she says. “Dr. Trotter had not even bothered to talk to the teachers before she made the decision.”

On Feb. 1, 1982, Kemp submitted her protest letter. Two days later, Dr. Leroy Ervin, assistant vice-president in charge of developmental studies, relieved her of her supervisory duties. At a grievance hearing held at Kemp’s request, Ervin called her a liar. She also learned that Ervin was soliciting critical letters about her from former students and had, even tried to blackmail a homosexual teacher into denouncing her.

Kemp, who was pregnant, filed suit against her boss for slander and libel. Then she had her firstborn, a boy. Then she cracked. “I had always thought I would be too shy to teach,” she says. “My father is shy, and when I was growing up I was a daddy’s girl.” In 1974 she had been treated briefly for depression, and now the campaign against her plunged her into what she called “a living hell.” In August and again in September 1982, she tried to kill herself—first stabbing herself 16 times in the sternum with a kitchen knife, then swallowing an overdose of an antipsychotic drug that had been prescribed for her. “People were suffering on my behalf,” she explains. “Life wasn’t worth living.”

And yet, with the help of her family and her charismatic Christian religion, she pulled out of her depression. She filed a second suit against Trotter and Ervin, this time for free speech violations. When her contract was not renewed, Kemp left and began teaching English at Southern Technical Institute near her home in suburban Atlanta. She had a second child, Margie, in 1984.

By the time the cases came to trial in January, she says, “I was at peace.” Well she might be, as it turned out. Ervin and Trotter admitted that many athletes would never have been accepted were it not for their potential as “revenue producers” on the playing fields. A local paper pointed out that only 4 percent of the school’s black basketball players and 17 percent of its black football players managed to graduate, and a defense attorney commented blithely, “We may not be able to make a university student out of him, but…maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.”

Kemp’s charges of harassment were also substantiated. No one was flabbergasted when she won. But when Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris heard of the jury’s $2.6 million judgment—$2.3 million of it in punitive damages against Trotter and Ervin—he was astonished. The State Legislature considered the grim possibility that the award would have to come from taxpayers, since the Board of Regents’ insurance carrier had gone into receivership in December. The university hurriedly announced that it would no longer admit academically deficient student athletes and would investigate the issue of grade tampering.

Meanwhile the formerly shy Jan Kemp is still speaking out. “You have to take the university as you would an errant child and nurture it back to health,” she says. “The athletes were being exploited to produce revenue for the University of Georgia.

“The best thing, to me, that has come out of this trial,” she adds, “is that my zest for life has returned.” Now she wants to see how many ripples will spread from her $2.6 million stone. “I hope a lot of changes will be made,” she says.

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