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KNOXVILLE – Civil rights leader Rita Geier, who now helps to lead diversity efforts as an administrator at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was honored Thursday with a lifetime achievement award during the second annual African American Image Awards.

The awards — which celebrate excellence displayed by both black students and faculty during the past year — were hosted by Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., the Student African American Brotherhood, the Diva Opals and several other minority student organizations across campus. The Love United Gospel Choir performed.

“I was deeply honored, and I applaud the organizations that came together to recognize the outstanding leaders and scholars and athletes,” Geier said.

Other honorees included senior Brittany Lacy, who received the Collegiate Achievement award; Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Jane Redmond, who won an outstanding faculty-staff award; and Jocelyn Milton, associate director of Minority Student Affairs, who also received an outstanding faculty-staff award.

Geier came to UT in September 2007. She serves as an associate to the UT Knoxville Chancellor and helps lead intercultural efforts and implement goals of the university’s diversity plan and Ready for the World initiative. She also serves as a senior fellow at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

Geier’s impact on UT and other Tennessee colleges and universities goes back much further, though.

Nearly 40 years ago, as a 23-year-old faculty member at Tennessee State University, Geier sued the state of Tennessee 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 1968 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.

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. was founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1914 by three young African American male students who wanted to organize a Greek letter fraternity that would truly exemplify the ideals of brotherhood, scholarship and service. Today, Phi Beta Sigma is an international organization of leaders. The Kappa Chi Chapter was chartered at the University of Tennessee in 1979.

Student African American Brotherhood, with more than 70 chapters in the United States and abroad, was founded on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Ga., in 1990. Its goal was to provide student development intervention and support to African American men enrolled in college.

Diva Opals was established at UT in fall 2005. Jocelyn Milton decided that an organization needed to be formed for African-American women to come together on a mental, academic, spiritual and emotional level. The DIVAS — which stands for Divine Intellectual African American Sisters — work to ensure that members live balanced lives. The group volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House.


Antoine Johnson, Phi Beta Sigma, (615) 887-6348,