A court-ordered agreement to increase racial diversity at Tennessee colleges and universities is coming to an end, although higher education officials say they will continue the diversity programs it required.
Gov. Phil Bredesen announced yesterday that the state, the federal government and the state’s higher education agencies have agreed to seek dismissal of the 1968 lawsuit after parties agreed that the state had made sufficient progress.
The agreement stems from a lawsuit filed by Rita Sanders Geier, then an instructor at historically Black Tennessee State University. She challenged the state’s “dual system” of higher education for minorities.
After one settlement failed in 1984, a federal judge approved a new one in 2001, which became the Geier Consent Decree. If the required goals were met, the litigation was to end.
“Today, I’m proud to announce that Tennessee has met the challenge set by the Geier lawsuit — to build a unitary public higher education system that truly offers equal access to all citizens,” said Bredesen. “Now, we’ll ask a judge to recognize something that we’ve long felt in our hearts … in Tennessee, the door really is open to all.”
The decree required Tennessee spend $75 million over 10 years to help public colleges and universities diversify their student bodies, faculties and staffs.
Dr. Richard G. Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, says the decree has been “tremendously important and successful” and that its provisions will be continued.
According to Bredesen, the state is committed to supporting diversity programs born from the lawsuit, as well as other initiatives to promote college enrollment and graduation among under-represented students.
“In some ways, this journey is ended — we are concluding this lawsuit, and people are no longer barred from attending colleges and universities because of the color of their skin,” Bredesen said. “But in other ways, this journey stretches far out before us and won’t be complete until we remove every kind of barrier that stands in the way of any Tennessean’s dream to earn a college education.”
Higher education officials told the state’s Fiscal Review Committee last year that the directives were being met.
To meet those directives, the state had to complete measurement studies of Black students, establish minority and nontraditional scholarship programs and establish pre-doctoral fellowship programs at various institutions.
Of the universities overseen by the Tennessee Board of Regents, Black enrollment rose from 17.8 percent in 1984 to 23.5 percent in 2005. In the University of Tennessee system, enrollment increased from 7.9 percent to 11.6 percent.
Wendy Thompson, special assistant to the chancellor of the board, says the pre-university program has been successful in boosting enrollment because it allows prospective Black students to spend a week or two on a predominantly White campus.
Attorney George E. Barrett, who filed the original lawsuit, says he’s satisfied with the accomplishments of the decree. “The main objective was to get rid of the vestiges of segregation,” he says, “and I believe the state has done that.”
— Diverse staff and wire reports
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