Saturday, December 13, 2008

When the lights dim and the crowd fades


Portraits of shame


Scandal scored a trifecta this week, as heavyweights from the worlds of politics, business, and law were accused of fraud. Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich has been arrested for offering to sell Barack Obama's open Senate seat to the highest bidder. Bernard Madoff ran his investment firm as a giant Ponzi scheme; losses are thought to approximate $50 billion. And lawyer Marc Dreier bilked sophisticated investors of $380 million. Neither law nor higher education in general can escape responsibility for the behavior of these men. Blagojevich and Dreier held law degrees. Indeed, the New York Times took pains to describe Marc Dreier as "a Yale graduate and Harvard-educated lawyer." For his part, Madoff served as treasurer of Yeshiva University's board of trustees.

The diagnosis is simple. Greed kills. One of MoneyLaw's running themes is that American universities fare rather poorly in identifying, let alone living or inculcating, moral values. As a partial antidote to the poison represented by Blagojevich, Madoff, and Dreier, I thought I would mark the untimely passing of an academic hero:
Jan KempJan 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. . . .

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 . . . . 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. . . .

Jan KempDr. 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. . . .

“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.”
I thank University Diaries for bringing Jan Kemp's obituary to my attention. And Pat Forde of ESPN has written a fine tribute to Dr. Kemp. I laud her here because she did something as important as it was simple: Jan Kemp told the truth. Even though she faced dire consequences for telling the truth, she did so for the best of reasons. The American academy, especially in its treatment of student-athletes, is a far better place on account of her actions.

If only the whole of our society understood the value of telling the truth. In political, financial, and legal arenas, no less than in collegiate coliseums, decency may be all that keeps us company when the lights dim and the crowd fades.

Jan Kemp


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