Rita Sanders Geier, '70, delivers 2007 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture

Rita Sanders Geier

In 1968, Rita Sanders Geier became the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit alleging that the State of Tennessee was violating the law by maintaining a segregated system of higher education. Her suit was prompted by the University of Tennessee's announcement of its intent to expand in Nashville. An instructor at Tennessee State University and a student at Vanderbilt Law School when the suit was filed, Geier feared the state's resources would be devoted to building UT's presence in the capital city and that historically black TSU would be neglected.

Geier, who delivered the law school's annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture Jan. 15, emphasizes the pragmatic aspect of her role in the suit. "What I did 38 years ago was not special or heroic, it was opportunistic," Geier says. "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."

The suit 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. The consent decree has served as a springboard for new initiatives now that race-based scholarships are no longer legal.

Geier currently serves as 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.