Rita Sanders Geier, formerly Associate to the Chancellor and Senior Fellow at the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (2007-2011), led efforts to achieve the university’s intercultural and diversity goals and to promote solutions to critical public policy issues. She assumed these positions after an extensive career in public service, most recently as Executive Counselor to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) from 2001 to 2007 and as Associate Commissioner and Deputy Associate Commissioner for Hearings and Appeals at SSA from 1992-2001.
Previously, Ms. Geier was General Counsel for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a Federal-State economic development partnership from 1988-1992. Her work at ARC followed nine years with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Division, where she was Assistant Director for Commercial Litigation and Senior Trial Counsel, specializing in civil prosecution of fraud cases. Before DOJ, Ms. Geier was Director of Seattle-King County Legal Services, Regional Director for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), directing operations in seven western states and Micronesia, and Director of LSC’s first research and demonstration office, funding projects nationally to improve the quality and access to legal services for low income people.
Born in Memphis Tennessee, Ms. Geier graduated from Memphis Melrose High School and earned her Bachelor of Arts from Fisk University. After earning a Master of Arts in History from the University of Chicago, she returned to Tennessee to teach at Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville. Her experience there convinced her that the State of Tennessee continued to maintain a dual and distinctly unequal system of higher education, one for blacks and one for whites. In 1968, Ms. Geier led other TSU faculty and students in filing a class action lawsuit in Federal court seeking eradication of the vestiges of past legal segregation and creation of a unitary system of higher education to provide greater access and equity for African-Americans throughout the state’s colleges and universities. The Federal court’s order that the State of Tennessee had an affirmative duty to dismantle its dual system became a model for challenges to other higher education systems throughout the South. During 38 years of Federal litigation and oversight, the State of Tennessee invested approximately $500 million in student scholarships, faculty and administrative hiring and advancement, graduate study, summer preparatory programs, curricula and campus life changes, and capital improvements, including $77 million under the 2001 Consent Decree.
Ms. Geier earned a Juris Doctor degree at Vanderbilt University Law School in 1970. She received the Presidential Rank Meritorious Executive Award from President William Clinton, is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and continues to work for equal justice and opportunity through numerous organizations, including the Knoxville Area Urban League, the Tennessee Justice Center and the Board of Advisors for Vanderbilt University Law School.