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KNOXVILLE — A civil rights pioneer who 39 years ago sued the state of Tennessee to desegregate its higher education system has come back to help lead diversity efforts at the state’s flagship institution.

Rita Sanders Geier
Rita Sanders Geier
Rita Sanders Geier has been named associate to UT Knoxville Chancellor Loren Crabtree, and will help lead intercultural efforts and implement goals of the university’s diversity plan and Ready for the World initiative.

She also will serve as senior fellow at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

“I have accepted the invitation to come to UT because this is an institution that is forward-thinking. International and intercultural awareness are institutional imperatives, not options. I’m excited to be part of that level of commitment,” Geier said.

Geier was a 23-year-old faculty member at Tennessee State University in 1968 when she filed the lawsuit after the University of Tennessee announced plans to expand in Nashville. She feared that UT-Nashville would become a four-year, predominantly white school with top-notch facilities while historically black TSU would be neglected.

The suit resulted in the 2001 Geier Consent Decree, which provided $77 million in state funds over six years to diversify student populations 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 9 percent of this year’s freshmen are black.

The Geier Consent Decree was dismissed last year.

Crabtree said it’s exciting to know that Geier, who already has had such an impact on higher education in Tennessee, will now help UT navigate the future.

“We are honored to have her join our administration,” he said. “She has been and will continue to be an inspiration in our efforts to ensure access, opportunity and success for every resident of our state.”

Alan Lowe, executive director of the Baker Center, said Geier will be involved in a host of activities for the center, especially in the areas of civil rights and health care disparities. Her work will include public programs and assistance with companion courses, research and outreach to underserved communities with an eye to future Baker Center programs.

“Just by looking at her career you can see that she is going to be a tremendous resource to students, faculty, staff and our community,” Lowe said.

Geier said she’s looking forward to the work she’ll do at UT.

“UT’s goal, through Ready for the World and the diversity plan, is to prepare globally aware students who are equipped to succeed in the 21st century,” she said. “As Tennesseans, as Americans and as citizens of the world, it is in our national self-interest to become a cohesive and inclusive society. As recent Supreme Court decisions have shown, laws and court rulings may define the permissible means to achieve equality, but we must build a foundation for social justice based on knowledge and understanding. We must realize that it is not in the best interest of America or the world for us to waste any of our most vital resource, our human capital.”

“Ready for the World: The International and Intercultural Awareness Initiative” involves altering the curriculum, encouraging faculty to incorporate international and intercultural aspects to all of their courses, expanding study abroad and work-study opportunities, and encouraging students to take advantage of all of these things.

The diversity plan, which is part of Ready for the World, is administered in partnership with UT’s Office of Equity and Diversity. The plan has six goals:

• To create and sustain a welcoming, supportive and inclusive campus climate.
• To attract and retain individuals from under-represented populations into faculty, staff and administrative jobs.
• To attract, retain and graduate more students from under-represented populations and international students.
• To develop and strengthen partnerships with diverse communities in Tennessee and worldwide.
• To ensure that undergraduate classes include significant intercultural perspectives.
• To prepare graduate students to become teachers, researchers and professionals in a diverse world.

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

Prior to joining UT, Geier worked at the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C., as executive counselor to the commissioner for special initiatives, 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.

Geier spoke at fall 2006 commencement and at the seventh annual Julian Blackshear Scholarship Banquet, sponsored by the University of Tennessee’s Black Law Student Association, in April.

For more about Ready for the World, see

For more about the Baker Center, see


Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034,