Tennessee Higher Education Plan Offers New HopeBy Eleanor Lee Yates
NASHVILLE Tennessee State University President Dr. James A. Hefner says the recent settlement of a 32-year-old higher education federal desegregation lawsuit means new opportunities for students to receive a quality education in a diverse learning environment. “This really gives TSU the chance to be the best it can be,” Hefner told Black Issues. “This decision will assist us in becoming the public institution of Nashville.” Last month, a federal district judge approved an agreement designed to eliminate the last vestiges of segregation in the state’s colleges and universities by dropping racial enrollment goals. Instead, schools will strive to appeal to all races.Though the settlement affects other state colleges and universities, helping historically Black Tennessee State University in Nashville attract more White students is the centerpiece of the new plan. TSU, the alma mater to such notables as Oprah Winfrey, will receive more than $70 million over the next 10 years. The settlement includes up to $20 million for an endowment to fund merit-based scholarships, $3.75 million for scholarships for evening and weekend “nontraditional” students, and $400,000 for a marketing campaign for the school. TSU officials are extremely happy about the strong possibility of having the only law school in Middle Tennessee. There is a five-year proposal for a merger between the private Nashville School of Law and TSU, which would get up to $17 million to start the program. Though school officials are optimistic about the merger, a failure would still provide TSU with $5 million for new programs, including a new College of Public Service and Urban Affairs at the downtown campus.TSU’s downtown Avon Williams campus will be renovated and will cater largely to evening and weekend students who work during the day. Other funds will be used for faculty development, research grants and library improvements.Both the Tennessee Board of Regents system, of which TSU is a part, and the University of Tennessee system must hold summer enrichment camps to expose minority high school students to college life, offer fellowships to minority doctoral students and recruit more Black visiting professors. University of Tennessee President Wade Gilley says he expects UT to double its enrollment of minority students in the next five to 10 years. UT minority enrollment is now approximately 13 percent.
A Long and Arduous Case The long and arduous case — now called Geier vs. Sundquist — began in 1968 when a 23-year-old TSU instructor became incensed at plans to build a new campus in Nashville, a move she considered unjust. The case was filed by Rita Sanders Geier, the former instructor, but through the years included other plaintiffs, the state of Tennessee and the defendant, along with three groups that joined the case as plaintiff-intervenors, including the U.S. Department of Justice and two groups of TSU professors. U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr. approved the settlement, which had taken close to a year to be hammered out by attorneys representing the various interests, all under the scrutiny of a mediator. Wiseman will maintain jurisdiction in the case until he is satisfied that the state has followed through on its obligation. In 1968, Rita Sanders, a graduate of Fisk University and the University of Chicago, was teaching history part time at TSU while attending law school at Vanderbilt. When plans were announced for the University of Tennessee to build a Nashville campus, she feared that the new school would be a predominantly White campus with new facilities and all the bells and whistles, while TSU, which was there first, would be lacking. She felt the new plans would perpetuate a dual system of higher education. Sanders, who later married attorney Paul Geier, is now a 56-year-old associate commissioner of hearings and appeals with the Social Security Administration in Falls Church, Va. She says her anger at the time helped push her to make a stand.Speaking from her home in Potomac, Md., Geier says that the timing of a historic event probably played a part in her decision to sue. That spring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in her hometown of Memphis. When riots broke out in numerous cities, police officers shut down access to parts of Nashville, making it difficult for Sanders to travel from her north Nashville home across town to Vanderbilt. “It added insult to injury. I was very distraught. It was as if the railroad crossing divided White Nashville from Black Nashville,” she says. Geier says she was no militant but she did participate in a demonstration to integrate a Tennessee cafeteria and took part in two marches led by King while she was a student in Chicago.Through the years, Geier says, she got on with her life but always kept in touch with what was going on with the lawsuit. She and her husband moved to the Washington, D.C., area and raised a family, and she enjoyed her career.Geier credits TSU professor Dr. Raymond Richardson, along with others, who joined the suit and kept it alive through the years. Geier, who worked on the mediation process much of last spring, feels hopeful about the settlement.“I think the whole key is to build a strong educational program with career options and choices. The settlement will help TSU have primary and exclusive opportunities in many areas,” Geier says.There have been numerous milestones during this long and winding story. In 1979 the University of Tennessee-Nashville closed its doors and merged with TSU. In a 1984 effort to desegregate more fully, state universities were required to have an undergraduate racial makeup that reflected the community.“But it has really been hard on Tennessee State because we had (an enrollment goal) of 50 percent White,” says Artis Twyman, a spokesman for the university. He added that some other universities around the state did not have such ambitious enrollment goals because of their location. Twyman says it is difficult for a historically Black school to draw large numbers of White students.“We’ve had to really market to White students, including offering full scholarships,” he says.Currently TSU’s undergraduate enrollment is 65 percent Black, 30 percent White, and 5 percent other ethnic groups. The recent settlement ends these enrollment goals. But some critics worry that the change will do more harm than good. The consent decree also abolishes enrollment goals for the White schools and ends mandatory affirmative action in Tennessee for hiring faculty.Nevertheless, Hefner feels the recent decision will propel TSU forward.“This is in TSU’s best interest,” he says. “We did not feel having a quota held over our head was in the best interest,” he says.Since Hefner’s arrival as president in 1991, Hefner has been a guiding force in the construction of eight new buildings on campus. Two more, a science building and a performing arts center, are slated.Hefner is currently putting together a coordinating committee to help put the settlement into play.“We are not about to fail. The committee will make sure the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed,” he says.This settlement is among several other recent cases that attempt to correct past discrimination. Maryland’s “Report and the Partnership Agreement Between the State of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights” was completed late last month. Much of the agreement involves ways to enhance Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities. Some highlights of the agreement include requiring the state of Maryland to complete capital projects already begun at the colleges. Also, funding for capital projects must be provided by the legislature to ensure that the facilities at historically Black colleges and universities are comparable to those at traditional White institutions. The agreement commits public colleges and universities to continuing, expanding and monitoring their recruitment and admissions activities to make sure African Americans have equal access to public higher education. In the agreement, the state of Maryland promises to expand the pool of funds available for need-based financial aid.
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