KNOXVILLE -– Civil rights pioneer Rita Sanders Geier today urged more than 1,000 University of Tennessee graduates to challenge injustice and fight for their beliefs as they enter the world.
Geier led UT’s commencement ceremonies at Thompson-Boling Assembly Center and Arena. Geier made Tennessee history in 1968 by challenging the legality of the state’s higher education system, alleging it was still segregated.
“What I did 38 years ago was not special or heroic, it was opportunistic. I was in the right place at the right time to do what needed to be done, and I did it. There was no lofty moralizing. It was simply the choice to do the right thing or to acquiesce to a status quo that was unjust.”
Her suit was prompted by the University of Tennessee’s announcement of its intent to expand in Nashville. An instructor at Tennessee State University at the time, she feared the state’s resources would be devoted to building UT’s presence in the capital city and that the historically-black TSU would be neglected.
Geier said she was truly honored by the invitation to address the University of Tennessee’s graduates.
“It is not as big a surprise as many may think because it is the culmination of a relationship that was born in contention many decades ago, but that has grown into mutual respect, shared vision and accomplishment.”
She noted UT’s “commitment and interest to continue the progress in diversity” as impressive and the many students she met during her visit as “inspiring.”
Nearly 20 percent of the 1,400 fall graduates are minority students –- a fact Geier noted during her address. The federal lawsuit Geier initiated 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. More than 1,300 black students have benefited from Geier-funded scholarships at UT Knoxville since the decree, and black enrollment has grown from 6.4 percent in 2001 to 8.2 percent in 2006.
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.
Geier urged graduates to approach their lives with an attitude of humility and thanksgiving and to always give back.
“You have all heard that of those to whom much is given, much is expected. I believe that,” she said, encouraging the students to find opportunities to serve the public good.
“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.”
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.
More than 2,800 summer and fall graduates were eligible to participate in commencement. The ceremony can be viewed in an archived webcast at http://www.tennessee.edu/fall06/.