Published: Tue Apr 8, 2003"Tennessee Tech University is a trailblazer, a pioneer and a role model to all other state and federal higher education institutions."
That’s how Rita Geier — in a presentation before a full audience in Derryberry Hall Auditorium Tuesday — described TTU’s commitment to encouraging diversity on its campus.
She is the original plaintiff in the 1968 Geier lawsuit, filed because Tennessee failed to take an active role in desegregating its higher education institutions even after its legal desegregation in 1956.
And she visited TTU, in part, because the university was selected as the first recipient of the Tennessee Board of Regents’ Spirit of Geier Award, named in her honor and meant to recognize institutions or individuals who have shown exceptional commitment to implementing the intent of the Geier Consent Decree.
" It’s humbling to have an award named after you, but it’s the spirit of TTU that this award really represents," she said.
Among TTU’s efforts to support the consent decree include:
• Piloting its own pre-university program for minority high school students in 2001, which was used as a model for this year’s official Geier summer program,
• Hosting a Geier visiting professor, Frank Underdown, professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan Technological University,
• And initiating a plan that doubled the number of black graduate students enrolled at TTU within one year.
" The Geier litigation has been a great source of personal learning to me over the years," she said. "I’ve learned that if you pursue your mission, even though your goals will change, then the journey will get you there."
Although the lawsuit originated in 1968, for example, it wasn’t until 2000 — under the mediation efforts of Carlos Gonzáles — when all plaintiffs in the litigation agreed to the Geier Consent Decree.
Gonzáles is now monitoring the compliance of all parties, and if all aspects of the consent decree are carried out to the satisfaction of the federal court, Tennessee’s system of higher education could be declared unitary in 2005, bringing an end to the litigation.
" The litigation originated in an effort to halt the construction of a building in Nashville meant to house an extension of the University of Tennessee, a school with mostly white students that was thriving in the shadow of the under-funded Tennessee State University, which had mostly black students," Geier said.
" However, we immediately realized the need for educational justice and opportunity for all, and demanded a remedy on a statewide scope," she continued.
She concluded her presentation by thanking TTU for "aggressively pursuing this mission, moving from compliance to commitment through your efforts."
" Over the 32 years of Geier litigation, I like to think that all parties were travelers who learned from the journey," she said. "We learned things that bring us together rather than divide us. It's my prayer that this will become the true spirit of Geier. The journey is not over and the mission not achieved, but it is within our reach."
Geier is executive counselor to the federal commissioner of the Social Security Administration and among the awards she had received throughout her career as an attorney is the Presidential Rank Meritorious Executive Award.
She is married to Paul M. Geier, and they have two sons. The couple lives in Maryland.