UT established a continuing education center in Nashville in 1947 and over the years had expanded evening and noncredit offerings. In 1960 UT approved offering two years’ resident credit at the Nashville location and raised the number of years of resident credit to three in 1963 and to four in 1965. Plans were announced and work was begun on a major downtown center for the UT at Nashville operations in 1968, the same year that Rita Sanders (later Geier), a faculty member at Tennessee State University, and four other plaintiffs (Ernest Tarrell, Patrick Gilpin, Harold Sweatt, and Phillip Sweatt), filed suit against the University of Tennessee, Tennessee State University, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the governor, and the Tennessee State Board of Education under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act asserting that Tennessee was violating the law by maintaining a segregated system of higher education and that UT’s Nashville campus existed for the sole purpose of continuing the dual racial systems.
The court ruled that construction could proceed but required a plan be filed for desegregation of higher education in Tennessee. In April 1969 the State of Tennessee filed the desegregation plan with Judge Frank Gray as he had required, and at the same time, the plaintiffs filed a proposal calling for the merger of Tennessee State University and UT at Nashville. Judge Gray ordered feasibility studies of the possible merger of the two institutions. In 1974 he ordered that UT cease to offer its graduate education program in Nashville. In January 1974 THEC submitted a report to Judge Gray showing a “significant and encouraging” increase in enrollment of African American students at UT at Nashville, but only a “negligible” increase in white enrollment at TSU. Gray ordered the creation of a Desegregation Monitoring Committee to oversee the desegregation of public higher education in Tennessee. The 12-member committee was composed of the executive officer and three members from each of the state’s three higher education bodies (UT, Tennessee Board of Regents, and THEC). He also ordered the three bodies to file an interim desegregation plan to create a greater “white presence” at TSU in the 1974–75 school year. THEC and UT filed separate plans. TSU, which favored a merger, did not file a plan. On July 31, 1974, the desegregation monitoring committee filed a plan that recommended keeping the two institutions separate and offering certain joint programs, certain cooperative programs, and certain exclusive programs. Avon Williams, representing a group of intervening plaintiffs, filed a motion for TSU to absorb UT at Nashville.
After a final hearing in fall 1976, Judge Gray gave his final ruling on January 31, 1977. He ordered a merger of UT at Nashville with Tennessee State University into a university to be part of the board of regents system and that the merger be completed by July 1, 1980. It was the first time a court had ordered a traditionally white campus to merge into a historically black one, with the black institution surviving. The merger was to be complete by July 1, 1980. (The UT at Nashville building is the Avon Williams downtown campus of TSU.)
In 1984, following the request of former UT at Nashville employees upset over how the merger was proceeding to enter the case and suits against Tennessee State by merged UT at Nashville employees alleging retribution, Judge Thomas Wiseman (having succeeded the deceased Judge Gray) entered a Stipulation of Settlement, which provided a blueprint for remedying past wrongs and ensuring equal access. In 1996 the state asked Wiseman to dismiss Geier’s case on the grounds that the new standard set by United States v. Fordice had been met. Wiseman declined. Shortly thereafter, all parties to the suit agreed to mediation. Carlos Gonzalez served as mediator, and on January 5, 2001, the court approved what was generally referred to as the Geier Consent Decree.
The decree involved improving the facilities of Tennessee State University (approximately $220 million was spent), providing programs funded jointly by the state and higher education institutions to provide scholarships to African American students in order to meet goals for increased African American enrollment, and increasing the numbers of African American employees. The decree required the state to spend $75 million a year over 10 years to help increase diversity in Tennessee’s colleges and universities. The African American Achievers Scholarships and other programs at UT were funded partially with Geier funds appropriated by the state. On September 11, 2006, Governor Breese announced that the consent decree had been lifted.