Several students voiced concern over the University of Michigan’s decision to name the new building which will house the William Trotter Multicultural Center after Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendit. The building's new name — Bernstein-Bendit Hall — comes after the University lauded a $3 million gift from the couple three weeks ago. The donation will help build the new facility, which will move from its current Washtenaw Ave. address to a more centrally located spot on South State Street.
A number of students protested the name on social media, arguing it erased the legacy of the center's current namesake: William Trotter— the prominent Black activist and co-founder of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization founded in 1905.
Trotter director Jackie Simpson refuted these claims and referred to confusion caused by reactions to the gift—including the initial announcement by University President Mark Schlissel at the April 21 Board of Regents meeting—that made it seem like the Trotter Center woud be renamed.
"I’ve heard many student concerns that the legacy of Trotter was going away,” Simpson said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Schlissel addressed the controversy in an open letter posted on the Trotter Center’s Facebook page, in which he drew comparisons to the Ford School of Public Policy, named for former President Gerald Ford, a University alum, housed in Joan and Sanford Weill Hall.
“It’s still the Ford School, named after one of our most cherished alumni, but the building is named after two donors who helped us realize the vision for the new facility,” Schlissel wrote. “In both the Ford and Trotter cases, the donors shared U-M’s vision for what their gifts could do for our campus.”
Schlissel also referenced an April 29 meeting between himself, E. Royster Harper, the University's vice president for student life, and representatives from the Black Student Union. BSU initially called for the relocation of Trotter two years ago with the #BBUM campaign — a viral public discussion on the experiences of Black students — and has been at the forefront of advocating for the center's new central campus location.
BSU board member Jamie Thompson, an LSA junior, voiced disapproval of the new building's name in an e-mail interview with the Daily last week. Thompson wrote although she understands the Multicultural Center itself will retain Trotter’s name, she still disagrees with it being housed in a facility named after Bernstein and his wife.
“Black students have fought for the last 40 plus years to provide a space on our campus for ourselves and for the promotion of diversity on our campus,” Thompson wrote. “What will it mean for students, and students to come, to see building after building all named after white men? At the end of the day, the University will operate as a business — caring more about monetary gifts than the feelings of its students and alumni.”
Thompson also criticized Schlissel’s Ford School/Weill Hall analogy, pointing out the inherent differences between the two buildings in a public Facebook post.
“Unlike the Ford School of Public Policy, Trotter is not a college,” Thompson wrote. “Trotter stands outside of the academic realm and serves as a social setting for students … It serves as an environment for students of color to have a space of their own.”
The University emphasized Bernstein and Bendit’s history of civil rights advocacy, highlighting the couple’s work with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission as well as a number of Jewish community service organizations in press releases and at the April 21 Board of Regents meeting.
Regent Bernstein applauded the role of student activists in securing the multicultural center’s relocation in a press release.
“Rachel and I are honored to support the legacy of all who have advanced the enriching and empowering mission of Trotter since its founding — the generations of U-M students who have been activists for diversity, and the current U-M students whose advocacy helped guide the vision for this new building,” Bernstein said in the statement. “Their movement inspires our gift.”
Simpson further underscored the importance of student involvement with "A New Trotter" — the student committee responsible for planning and designing the new center. She also previewed events hosted by the Trotter Center next semester aimed at educating the student body on the history of William Trotter and drafting goals for the center's new location.
“Students have been involved from the beginning,” Simpson said. “This summer, we’re creating more opportunities for people at the current Trotter to share their thoughts.”
Simpson noted, though, A New Trotter has struggled with the workload and turnover as students graduated and left the committee — only five students have been regularly involved with the planning body since 2013. Committee member Victoria Verellen, an LSA senior, has been affiliated with the current multicultural center since her freshman year, and affirmed A New Trotter’s small membership.
“Because the work is so broad and complex, it became difficult to keep bringing new people in,” Verellen said.
Verellen said she fully appreciates Bernstein and Bendit’s contribution, but also understands students' mixed reactions.
“As the planning committee, we had no idea the gift was happening,” Verellen said. “It seemed like right after the gift, the University shifted straight to this mentality of cheering the announcement. It would have been nice to pause, to give students time to process and fully understand the developments.”
According to Simpson, Schlissel will review the new building's layout and schematics this week. A tentative timeline aims for construction of the new facility to begin in the winter of 2017.
Editors note: a previous version of this article stated construction would begin in fall of 2016 instead of winter 2017.