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Couple Withdraw Multi-Million Dollar Donation Over a Name

26 July 2016 at 2:57 pm
Wendy Williams
A philanthropic couple has withdrawn a multi-million donation to an American university after a disagreement over a name.

Wendy Williams | 26 July 2016 at 2:57 pm


Couple Withdraw Multi-Million Dollar Donation Over a Name
26 July 2016 at 2:57 pm

A philanthropic couple has withdrawn a multi-million donation to an American university after a disagreement over a name.

Tearing money

Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendit, announced in April they would donate US$3 million (A$4 million) to the University of Michigan to help finance a new multicultural center on campus.

However Bernstein, who is chair of the university’s board of regents, was forced to retract the offer after concerns were raised about naming the building for them.

The current multicultural center is named after newspaper editor and civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter and is the only building named for an African American on the Ann Arbor campus.

In line with the university’s policy for major donors, the donation meant the the new facility which will house the Trotter Multicultural Center, would be renamed as the Bernstein-Bendit Hall. While the Trotter Center was to retain its name, the building would not have the Trotter name on it.

The proposal to remove Trotter’s name from the building sparked outrage among students, faculty and staff prompting Bernstein to withdraw the donation.

In a statement published on the university’s website Bernstein said what they believed was a gift was felt by some as a loss.

“[The gift] was about enhancing and preserving Trotter while demonstrating for all to see that 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,” Bernstein said.

“We know and appreciate that this is a complicated and challenging moment.

“Once the applause for our gift announcement quieted, we heard something else – voices on this campus that expressed deep, heartfelt concern about what was happening.

“It’s been said that ‘what we learn is more important than what we set out to do.’ And this was the case with our gift.

“What we believed to be a gift, others felt as a loss.”

Bernstein said he did not want to “silence Trotter”.

“Since the gift announcement we spent time with faculty, students, staff and alumni who shared with us their sense of loss and who expressed their fear that the only African American name on a building at our university would be diminished or erased.

“When Leon Howard, a program manager in the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, said that the names on buildings on our campus speak to our students, we heard him and we agreed.

“There are hundreds of buildings on this campus and only one – one – Trotter, honors the name of an African American. This is wrong. In Leon’s words, we did not want to silence Trotter – this one, lonely African American voice on our campus. This was, of course, not our intention, but it could have been the result.”

University president Mark Schlissel said for many the building name symbolised the “dedication of generations of Michigan students, faculty and staff who worked to make the campus more diverse and inclusive”.

“I have deep respect for Mark and Rachel’s efforts to listen carefully to these concerns, and to engage in thoughtful discussions about the issue with community members across campus,” Schlissel said.

“They’ve told me that in the months ahead they’ll continue to explore opportunities to support multiculturalism and of course Regent Bernstein remains fully engaged in the important strategic planning now underway for the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”

The new US$10 million (A$13.4 million) facility was approved in December 2015 and the project is proceeding as planned.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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