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Ann Arbor – As University of Michigan alums, Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendit, have been active volunteers and supporters of the university, donating to nearly a dozen institutions and schools on campus.

But their biggest gift is their latest: $3 million for a new multicultural center in the heart of campus, prompting the Board of Regents on Thursday to name the facility Bernstein-Bendit Hall in the couple’s honor.

Approved in December, the $10 million center was proposed to replace the nearly 50-year-old cultural center, after four town hall meetings, eight focus group and other outreach efforts with students. It is a response to one of seven points that the Black Student Union and U-M agreed to in 2014 as a way of improving the campus climate for minority students. Groundbreaking is planned in the fall.

Bernstein said he and his wife were inspired by those who created the legacy and mission of the cultural center of the past and were guided by the activists who have shaped the center of the future.

“It’s an important and symbolic statement about the importance of diversity on campus,” Bernstein said. “This will be unique across the nation in higher educaiton in terms of the central location of this building on our campus. It send a very strong message that we take these messages seriously, we are honoring not just the aspirations of our university but also the aspirations of our students who were integrally involved in this.”

For decades, African-American students have been lobbying for more diversity on campus, especially after the state's voters in 2006 approved the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative banning the use of affirmative action in higher education admissions and the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the decision.

In 2013, African-American students at U-M launched a social media campaign to launch discussions about what it was like to be black at a predominantly white university. Less than 5 percent of U-M’s students are African-American.

Among the issues that emerged was the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center, located off campus on Washtenaw Avenue. E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, has said with the facility being on the margins of campus, students sometimes felt like they were on the margins of campus too.

The new center, with 20,000 square feet, will move to replace the smaller Trotter center and move to the heart of campus, on State Street, near the Betsy Barbour House and Helen H. Newberry Residence, north of the Michigan Union.

It is expected to be paid for with gifts, such as the one from Bernstein and Bendit, and investment proceeds.

“It really speaks to work that Mark and Rachel have been doing all of their lives, taking on issues of social justice and community building,” Harper said.

Bernstein graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from the U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts. He also earned his JD from the U-M Law School and an MBA from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. He is president and managing partner of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills.

Meanwhile, Bendit also graduated with a B.A. from U-M’s LSA college. She also earned a master’s in education from Loyola University in Maryland and a JD from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. She is a mediator, teacher and attorney.

The couple have supported many areas of the university including athletics, U-M Dearborn, the Health System, the Ross School of Business, the University Musical Society, the Museum of Art and the Center for the Education of Women.

Their gift for the multicultural center is part of the Victors for Michigan $4 billion fundraising campaign underway at U-M.

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com

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