44 Years Later, and Beyond

Measuring Geier's Impact, and Looking Toward the Future

Ask anyone what the Geier Consent Decree did for TSU and Tennessee higher education generally, and they will tell you: it changed everything. In practice, though, what does that mean? The Lawyer asked those involved with the lawsuit to describe the process of implementing the higher education reforms agreed to under Geier, and to provide an update on the situation today.

Wendy Thompson, who now serves as Vice Chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, was tasked with helping negotiate and implement the changes. She describes the delicate conversations that led to the Consent Decree. "It was difficult to convince people that it was really going to end. After all, the 1984 stipulation of settlement said it would be over in five years, and here it was 2001 and still going on," Thompson says. Even at TSU, the reforms were hard to accept. "The difficulty to TSU was helping everyone understand that although ending the lawsuit meant different results for different people, it was going to be the best-case scenario for everyone. It was about changing its future but respecting its tradition, and that's tricky."

Thompson says faculty and administrators faced a lot of changes, from instituting white and Hispanic marketing efforts at TSU, to limiting the programs other Middle Tennessee universities could offer, to increasing African-American student recruitment in East Tennessee, to adding community college scholarships specifically targeting black students. She learned that opening lines of communication and fostering trust were the keys to defusing problems before they exploded. "I learned pretty quickly that there wasn't going to be a moment where everyone sang Kumbaya," Thompson says. Still, she tried to help faculty and administrators at all the schools understand that they had everything to gain from the changes and little to lose. "Every day another issue came up, it could either distract us or we could open up communication and get comfortable with it."

Today, it is hard to measure Geier's success at removing the vestiges of segregation from higher education in Tennessee. Carlos Gonzalez, the mediator, emphasizes that no single metric can capture the reforms' full impact. "You cannot measure the success of a lawsuit like Geier simply by counting heads, whether it's among students or among faculty," he says, citing difficulties finding African-American Ph.D. candidates in certain fields. He says "the development of uniqueness in an institution"—the degree to which each university is offering unique programming that competes for students' interest, without the state funneling them toward certain schools—is the best way to measure progress under Geier. Other metrics commonly cited include the tens of millions of dollars in scholarships, endowment funds, and new construction at TSU, the success of TSU's Avon Williams Campus at attracting nontraditional students into the university, new curricular offerings at schools around the state, and improvements in student body and faculty diversity on campuses across the state.

Still, Rita Geier believes much work remains to be done. That is why in 2007, she left her Washington job as executive counselor to the Social Security Commissioner and accepted a position leading the University of Tennessee's "Ready for the World" initiative, designed to foster intercultural education and promote diversity at UT. She and UT's administration saw it as an outgrowth of the Consent Decree—Geier for the 21st century, an era in which race-based diversity policies are judicially disfavored. "We were continuing a job that wasn't finished, wrapping Geier into that broader world and promoting the goal of diversity," says Geier, noting that it has been a challenge to convince people that underrepresentation is an ongoing problem to address. "Whether it is making inroads for students from Appalachia or working to include African Americans, it's important because it's the only way we can have a university that's not just suburban white kids." Geier, who recently retired from the post, says she will stay involved with the fight for equal access in education. "I hope the opportunities that people have received under Geier can be plowed back into the communities and into the elementary and secondary systems," she says. "We have to look at a holistic approach, and it's not going to happen overnight."

Thompson, of the Board of Regents, agrees that ensuring access to higher education is only one step; the state should also be giving traditionally underrepresented the tools to be successful in college and beyond. "If we're going to meet the challenge to educate all people in the state, we can't do that without eliminating the achievement gap" between underrepresented and minority students, on the one hand, and more affluent, white students, on the other, says Thompson. It's a daunting goal, but, she adds, at least there's a precedent for tackling such large problems. "Geier has given us the roadmap to start that process."

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