On May 15, 1968, Rita Sanders Geier, '70, became the named plaintiff in a well-publicized lawsuit brought against the University of Tennessee on behalf of the current and future students of Tennessee State University by her attorney, George Barrett, '57. The case of Geier v. University of Tennessee, which continued for nearly 40 years, would ultimately transform public education in Middle Tennessee.
Geier - then Rita Sanders - had graduated from Fisk University and earned a Master's degree in history at the University of Chicago before joining the TSU faculty in the late 1960s. "I had just returned from the University of Chicago, so I was idealistic in my view of what college education should be," she recalls. "Tennessee State was suffering from decades of benign neglect, and it offered a stark, negative and different picture. The physical plant was terrible, the curriculum stagnant and inadequate to offer a real quality education. The technical programs were either missing or weak."
Geier also discovered that faculty salaries were significantly lower. "In fact, the whole funding base for the school was less than at the other, comparable state universities," she said. "The UT system received the lion's share of state funding, and there was no participation by any black school in that system."
Geier confided her concerns about TSU's future to classmate Ruth Robinson, '67. "Ruth was two years ahead of me at Vanderbilt, and she had befriended me," Geier said. Robinson introduced Geier to George Barrett, for whom Robinson had clerked the year before. "It all just came together," Geier recalled in an interview during a visit to the law school to deliver the Martin Luther King, Jr., Lecture in January 2007. "My role and my experience at TSU provided the motivation, and George was willing to bring the suit. We formed a happy union."
The suit Barrett file on Geier's behalf had its basis in the fact that Tennessee maintained a dual system of higher education. "Our suit applied the principle that 'open doors' at all institutions were not enough if you had a system of education where barriers still existed," Barrett says. "And Judge Frank Gray Jr. ruled that the state had to dismantle that system."
The process of combining the University of Tennessee, TSU and other state-funded schools into a single system of higher education was boosted by a Stipulation of Settlement in 1984, which provided a blueprint for remedying past wrongs and ensuring equal access. The suit culminated in the Court-approved Geier Consent Decree in 2001, which resulted in a $23 million windfall to TSU and a total of more than $41 million distributed among other state institutions.
Geier, who is now an attorney in the Office of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, also had a unique opportunity to work on a compelling case during law school. "It provided a great legal education," she said.