Bernstein withdraws $3M gift from UM

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein has withdrawn a $3 million gift to support a new multicultural center after students expressed concerns about the removal of the only African-American name on a campus building.

Approved in December, the $10 million center is to replace the nearly 50-year-old cultural center named after William Monroe Trotter, an activist for racial justice.

Plans for the new center are in response to one of seven points that the Black Student Union and UM agreed to in 2014 as a way of improving the campus climate for minority students.

In April, Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendit, gave the university $3 million to support the center as part of their commitment to social justice, civil rights and the university. The regents voted to rename the building, Bernstein-Bendit Hall.

But after the announcement, Bernstein and university officials heard the voices of students who were concerned about removing Trotter’s name from campus, so he and Bendit decided to withdraw the gift.

“In an increasingly divided and divisive society, we feel not just motivated but obligated to stand for a broad and inclusive society,” Bernstein said during Thursday’s meeting. “That is why we made this gift. ... Multiculturalism in general and race in particular are not other people’s issues but a shared responsibility. A message that is more urgent and important today than ever before.”

But many students felt the gift to the multicultural center was a loss, arguing the names on university buildings speak to them.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of buildings on this campus and only one — one — Trotter, honor an African-American,” said Bernstein, chair of the regents. “This is wrong ... We did not want to silence Trotter, this one lone African-American voice on our campus. This was of course not our intention but could have been a result.”

He added his wife, Rachel Bendit, agreed with the university that their gift be withdrawn and they will continue to search for ways to play a role in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.

Bernstein was not available for comment after the meeting and could not be reached by phone.

Groundbreaking is still planned in the fall for the 20,000-square-foot center, to be located in the heart of campus, on State, near the Betsy Barbour House and Helen H. Newberry Residence, north of the Michigan Union.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said he did not know why Bernstein didn’t give the gift but let Trotter’s name stay on the building.

Fitzgerald said there are many people who give gifts but do not get buildings named in their honor. He added the project was approved before Bernstein and Bendit’s gift and it will be funded through investment proceeds and gifts.

“So this does not threaten this project in any way,” Fitzgerald said.

President Mark Schlissel began Thursday’s meeting by announcing the decision of Bernstein and Bendit, and said that he deeply respected the couple’s willingness to listen to the students, engage in thoughtful discussion and honor Trotter’s legacy.

“This experience reinforces how we must, as a university, do a better job of open and widely inclusive dialogue,” Schlissel said.

“As they always have, Mark and Rachel will continue to be strong supporters of Michigan, and have modeled for us the kind of outreach and dialogue we need to foster greater levels of cross-cultural understanding and to achieve our goals as a diverse and inclusive community.”