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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Higher Education Loses a Whistleblowing Heroine

America today is minus a true heroine, a woman who showed extraordinary courage in the face of the ignorance that sometimes reigns in the "hallowed halls" of higher education.

Jan Kemp died on December 5. That name might not ring a bell for you. But if you lived in the Deep South in the 1980s and followed college football--which includes just about everyone in the Deep South--the name will definitely ring a bell.

Kemp was an English professor at the University of Georgia who blew the whistle on preferential treatment given to "student-athletes." She was fired when she refused to inflate grades for Georgia athletes, particularly football players, some of whom were functionally illiterate.

Kemp sued the university and won, earning a "hero of the '80s" title from People magazine. She died at age 59 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.

The lawsuit proved to be a public-relations nightmare for the university, and Kemp won a $2.58 million award--later reduced to $1.1 million.

Until I began to research the Kemp case following her death, I did not realize just how much torment she endured--all because she insisted that an institution of higher learning should actually be educating its students.

She stayed in Athens, Georgia, home of the university, for most of her adult life, even though she was reviled by many UGA alums. Her private life was filled with pain, including two suicide attempts and an ugly divorce/child custody case--all of which seemed to stem from her battles with the university.

Taxpayers across the country owe a debt of gratitude to Jan Kemp. To be sure, colleges and universities still are plagued by corruption--as my own unlawful termination and other assorted problems at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) show.

But Jan Kemp took a major step toward holding public institutions accountable for their actions. I can only imagine the amount of fortitude it took for her to stare down the football-mad machine at a major Southern university.

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