ATLANTA — A federal court jury Wednesday awarded $2.57 million in back pay and damages to Jan Kemp, a former English instructor at the University of Georgia who said she was fired for speaking out against academic favoritism for student athletes.
The six-member U.S. District Court jury found that two Georgia officials--Vice President for Academic Affairs Virginia Trotter and Developmental Studies Director Leroy Ervin--violated Kemp's right to free speech by demoting and firing her.
"This is primarily a victory for academic integrity," Kemp said, adding that the award went "beyond my wildest dreams."
Kemp testified that her reason for filing the suit was to "clean up academic corruption" at the school and that she would be happy if she won only $1.
The central question was whether Kemp's demotion from English coordinator in the Developmental Studies program and her later dismissal as an instructor were in retaliation for her protests against preferential treatment of athletes.
But the trial became a forum on the way student athletes were admitted, graded and promoted at the school.
According to testimony, the university's admission standards were lowered for revenue-producing athletes, some athletes were promoted from the remedial program even if they were not meeting grade requirements, some were offered individual instruction and some were given more than the usual four quarters to get through the remedial program.
University officials maintained that preferential treatment was available to any remedial student who needed it, but athletes had the greatest needs.
State Atty. Gen. Michael Bowers said he had not decided if there will be an appeal. The state has 30 days to file one.
The jury of five women and one man deliberated 10 1/2 hours over three days before delivering the verdict. Testimony in the trial lasted five weeks.
The award included $79,680 in back pay, $200,000 in compensation for mental suffering, $1 for damage to Kemp's reputation, $1.5 million in punitive damages against Trotter and $800,000 in punitive damages against Ervin.
A jubilant Kemp said she had not decided what to do with the money, although she planned to give some of it to her church. Trotter and Ervin said they planned to remain at the school.
Hue Henry, one of Kemp's attorneys, was surprised at the size of the award. "My first reaction was, 'Wow,' " he said. "When they started talking a million dollars, I was ecstatic."
Pat Nelson, another of Kemp's attorneys, said the verdict would have far-reaching effects. "It was clear to the jury this is not just a problem in Athens, Ga.," he said.
"I think (the verdict) will encourage teachers and discourage administrators to go to court," Nelson said.
Melanie Mims, a 22-year-old sales representative who was head of the jury, said there was no particular piece of evidence that swayed the jury.
Asked why it took parts of three days to reach a verdict, she said: "We had to go through the evidence to make sure it was not just our feelings, but that we had something to back it up."
University President Fred C. Davison, who testified as a defense witness, said much of the blame for the poor level of education among athletes lies with the high schools that have not prepared students for college. But he testified that athletes benefit from attending the university, even if they don't graduate.
In a matter separate from but perhaps influenced by the trial, Davison announced Wednesday that the school will not make use of a loophole allowing admission of student athletes who fail to meet the NCAA's new academic eligibility requirements.
Davison said the loophole could allow schools to circumvent Proposition 48, the recently passed NCAA bylaw upgrading academic standards for athletes.
The new rule specifies that student athletes must have a 2.0 grade-point average in high school and a 700 SAT score to be eligible for an athletic scholarship.
"The loophole is that an institution may still enroll an athlete who does not meet the new requirements, with the only stipulation that the signee cannot play or participate in sports his or her freshman year," Davison said in a statement.
"Such a signee could be eligible for the succeeding three years without ever having satisfied the new NCAA entrance requirements for eligibility," he said.
Davison said Georgia will formally ask the Southeastern Conference at its spring meeting to adopt the new NCAA rule, but "without exception."