Rita Geier brings a unique perspective as UTâ’s new diversity coordinator
University of Tennessee officials surely considered civil rights pioneer Rita Geier (nÃ©e Rita Sanders) an adversary back in 1968 when she filed suit against the state for funding the predominantly white UT-Nashville campus over the historically black Tennessee State.
â“In 1968, I came there to teach and saw the situation, which was appalling and illegal,â” Geier says. â“The judges didnâ’t do anything to enforce it; the schools just dropped their statements that limited or prohibited students of one race from coming to their schools. Everything remained the same.â”
Maybe itâ’s a testament to the change her landmark suit helped bring about that today Geier is working through UT-Knoxville as the new associate to UT Chancellor Loren Crabtree, and is a key player in the universityâ’s â“Ready for the Worldâ” diversity initiative.
Her fervor for diversity and equality has not dimmed or quieted with age, and thereâ’s still a spark in her eye. She smiles as she describes the different sections of the â“Ready for the Worldâ” initiative, one component of a larger plan for the university to increase campus diversity. Lead by director Dr. Mary Papke, the program consists of four goals designed to increase the presence of other cultures on campus.
In the language of bureaucrats, the goals include altering the curriculum to increase diversity; encouraging faculty to include international and intercultural views in their courses; expansion of study-abroad and work-study opportunities; and increasing publicity of the offerings to the student body. But Geier explains it better in her own words.
â“First of all it is an emphasis on interculturalism equally with internationalism,â” she says. â“I think it has been easier for people to grasp the importance of a more international focus given globalization and geopolitics, etc., and more difficult for people to understand the larger scope and meaning of interculturalism. Itâ’s a very broad context, not just bringing people in from other cultures, but really interacting with them and infusing your learning environment with intercultural programs and activities.â”
And expanding the definition of diversity isnâ’t the only thing the initiative is doing. One of the main goals of the program is evolving the course curriculum to more accurately reflect nationwide diversity.
â“The other major strategy there is to increase the presence of people from other cultures, not just nations but also cultures, our own diversity and that of the student body, faculty and staff. We believe that those two goals are very synergistic, benefits for education as well as for the individual students and competitiveness of the school.â”
The Ready for the World initiative has been ongoing for the past three years, and thus far, Geier gives it high marks. â“I think there have been significant strides made,â” she says, pointing to initiatives such as â“themedâ” semesters. The current fall semester has a Medieval and Renaissance theme, featuring programs from the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance studies including the â“Saints and Citizens: Religion and Politics in the Middle Ages and the Renaissanceâ” symposium in the Hodges Library Auditorium November 15-16, performances from the Boston Camerata, a prestigious early music group that will be in residence during the semester, and a Medieval and Renaissance Faire.
â“Diversity is becoming an education of its own through reflecting a more inclusive view and a broader definition of the appropriate scope of the disciplines,â” Geier says.
But progress hasnâ’t come overnight, and Geier keeps the lawsuit that first challenged the stateâ’s system of segregated secondary education fresh in her memory. An instructor at Tennessee State in 1968, Geier instigated the lawsuit when state officials sought to expand the mostly white UT-Nashville campus while neglecting the rundown, mostly black Tennessee State.
â“What you need to understand is that, before integration, before the desegregation of the schools, the state maintained a segregated higher education problem. TSU was for blacks and all the other schools were for whites, and so that school existed for the sole purpose of the public education of blacks,â” says Geier.
â“When the Brown era ended, the higher education institutions were legally desegregated,â” she continues. â“But in fact, not much changed. There were token black students that went to UT and some white students that came to TSU. The majority of the schools were unaffected. What was traditionally important is the black schools were very neglected during this time and under-funded regarding faculties. TSU was clearly a second-class facility.â”
Over the course of a decades-long trial, the federal court held that the state of Tennessee had an obligation to dismantle the de facto dual system of higher education and eradicate the remnants of that dual system, the governing structures and funding mechanisms. Implementing the order was difficult, which is one of the reasons the lawsuit took nearly 40 years to complete.
The 2001 Geier Consent Decree marked a possible settlement, on the condition that the state meet a series of benchmarks over five years. The decree provided $77 million in state funds to diversify student populations and faculty of all state higher education institutions.
Over 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. The Geier Consent Decree was dismissed in 2006, when a federal judge ruled desegregation needs had been met.
â“There is still work to be done,â” Geier insists. â“The Geier Consent Decree was a good start. Now we need to put additional effort into aiding people that didnâ’t benefit from the decree.â”
In the absence of Geier Consent Decree, Geier thinks the university is doing a â“good jobâ” of trying to fill the void left by institutionalizing opportunity programs such as Tennessee Pledge and Tennessee Promise Scholarships. Those programs target students from high schools who have not traditionally sent many students to college, as well as students from historically low-income areas. Both provide scholarship aid for first generation college students.
â“Basically we feel we are training the professionals of the future, preparing them to be competitive in a global society and in an intercultural context,â” Geier says. â“Each of the schools is challenged to educate their graduates and professionals in ways that would help them do that studying abroad, or engage in research collaboratively to study interculturalism or international culture. We have a very big interest in faculty exchanges that would bring a diverse group of instructors and faculty to the university to help train our students. All this comes together. None of the programs are in isolation; they complement each other.â”
Diversity has always been an issue that resonates with Geier. But moving from Washington to Knoxville has reminded her that â“diversityâ” is a multi-faceted concept. â“The most obvious difference [between Washington and Knoxville] is that there isnâ’t nearly as much diversity, â“ she says.
â“If you define it broadly, too often [diversity] is defined as racial-ethnic, a question of black and white,â” she continues. â“That is the tradition of the South and it is very true of East Tennessee where you have fewer ethnic cultures, Asians, Hispanics and other communities. Kids that have had an insular upbringing are less likely to be open, curious and eager to embrace new cultures. That is why it is vital to bring this diversity to the student experience.â” â" Sarah Scoonover
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