Bernstein explains withdrawing $3M UM gift

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

When Mark Bernstein and Rachel Bendit offered a $3 million gift for the University of Michigan’s multicultural center, they wanted to make a public statement about their dedication to a more inclusive society.

After the couple gave the gift to the university, the Board of Regents in April approved renaming the building Bernstein-Bendit Hall following the center’s $10 million relocation and renovation, which is scheduled to begin in the fall.

But Bernstein, a regent, says he and his wife did not know the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Facility was the only building on campus that is named after an African-American.

Soon after, some students and faculty became upset about losing the Trotter name on the multicultural center and that’s why Bernstein announced Thursday he and Bendit would withdraw their gift and try to find another way to support multicultural work.

“We are not going to stop this work or retreat,” Bernstein said Friday. “We want to do it in a way that is constructive and it became apparent that was not how this was playing out.”

Bernstein — who read a statement during the regents meeting on Thursday and was unavailable after — and his wife have supported many philanthropic causes over the years, such as civil rights, environmental sustainability, disability issues, maternal health and Jewish issues. But this was to be the first time their names would ever publicly support a cause.

He said they have wanted their names to be part of the movement to demonstrate their commitment and allegiance to multicultural work and especially because it has never been more important.

“For us, that was the primary motivation,” said Bernstein, who has served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. “It was about publicly taking a stand for this type of work. It has never more urgent or imperative than it is right now to show multiculturalism must be broad and inclusive.”

Chris Seeman, a UM sophomore, said that while he admired the intention and generosity of Bernstein and Bendit, he was glad to see the Trotter name remain on the building.

“Changing the name of a building for a donor can sometimes be problematic,” said Seeman. “Such a chance would represent big money overpowering the nuances that go into these buildings, and their culture. The idea they were going to change the name of the building gives rise to the implicit idea that the university cares more about the money than the cultural significance of the building.

“This is a very valuable resource to a lot of people on campus.”

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said Thursday 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 still be funded through investment proceeds and gifts.

The new center is scheduled to open in 2018.

“It's a very personal decision to make a gift like this,” added UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen. “(Bernstein and Bendit) spent a lot of time considering where their philanthropy could have the biggest impact for civil rights and equality. When donors make a gift to the university, particularly one of this size, the university and the donor enter into a legal agreement. Discussions around making a gift are private between the university and the donor.

“It really is up to the donors to determine how much information they want to share about their gifts to the university.”

The Trotter Multicultural Center was named after William Monroe Trotter, a racial justice activist who attended Harvard University. In 1905, he co-founded the Niagara Movement, which preceded the National Association of the Advancement for Colored People. He left that group and founded the National Equal Rights League.

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