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KNOXVILLE — A civil rights pioneer who helped to redefine higher education in Tennessee will speak to University of Tennessee graduates during the fall 2006 commencement ceremony.

Rita Sanders Geier
Rita Sanders Geier
Rita Sanders Geier will address more than 1,000 students expected to participate in the ceremony set for 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 17, at the Thompson-Boling Assembly Center and Arena.

As a Tennessee State University faculty member in 1968, Geier filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of Tennessee’s higher education system, alleging it was still segregated.

Since the original filing in a U.S. District Court, many parties joined her as plaintiffs, including the U.S. Department of Justice and other faculty of Tennessee State University.

The suit resulted in the 2001 Geier Consent Decree, which provided $77 million in state funds to diversify students and faculty of all state higher education institutions. Since then, more than 1,300 black students have benefited from Geier-funded scholarships at UT Knoxville. Black enrollment on the Knoxville campus has grown from 6.4 percent in 2001 to 8.2 percent in 2006. About 10 percent of this year’s freshmen are black.

The consent decree was dismissed earlier this year, but has served as a springboard for new initiatives now that race-based scholarships are no longer legal. The new Tennessee Pledge and Tennessee Promise scholarships are awarded to academically-qualified students based on need and attendance at high schools that have traditionally sent only a few students to UT.

“We are honored to welcome Rita Geier to our campus and share her incredible journey with our graduates,” said Chancellor Loren Crabtree. “Her life’s work has had a significant impact on all campuses across the state and it continues to serve as an inspiration in our efforts to ensure access, opportunity and success for every resident of our state.”

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education cited the university for being at the top of the list among 50 flagship universities for black enrollment growth between 2001 and 2004.

Geier, who also was attending Vanderbilt University when the suit was filed, is now the executive counselor on interagency adjudication for the Social Security Service, serving as principal adviser on Medicare appeals, identity theft and other initiatives. She has had a long career in federal government as a trial attorney and administrator working with the Department of Justice and the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, D.C.

She also worked for the Legal Services Corp. and directed the organization’s first funding projects to improve the quality of legal services provided to low-income individuals.

Geier received her law degree from Vanderbilt University, a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University.

More than 2,800 UT students who have completed degree programs during the summer or fall semester will be awarded diplomas at the conclusion of the fall semester.

Parking for the university-wide commencement ceremony is available at any area on campus. Parking for disabled persons is available in the Neyland Drive Garage (G-10). For a campus parking map, visit

For more information regarding the ceremony, call the registrar’s office at (865) 974-2101 or visit

The ceremony will be webcast live and archived for future viewing at

Beth Gladden, media relations, (865) 974-9008, (865) 771-1284 or

Karen Collins, media relations, (865) 974-5186 or (865) 216-6862