If we're to believe the numbers, the United States will be a majority non-white country come 2055. On many university campuses, this demographic turning point has already happened. On others, it's just around the corner, including in some surprising places, like the University of Michigan (UM). As of 2015, its student population was 56.2 percent white.
UM has become a much more diverse place in recent decades. Though worth celebrating, campus diversity also creates challenges—most obviously, how to create a welcoming, understanding and environment where all students feel comfortable. Less obviously, there's a challenge of getting students from different backgrounds to interact in meaningful ways—creating an environment that is socially cohesive.
These issues loom very large in the minds of campus administrators. But we don't often see donors opening their checkbooks in this area. So we were intrigued by a $3 million gift from UM Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendif, to fund a new building, Bernstein-Bendit Hall, that will house the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center, a place where all students can "develop a better understanding and appreciation for the multicultural diversity of the university."
Trotter was born in Ohio in 1872. After graduating Harvard, he founded and edited a Boston newspaper, The Guardian, dedicated to the struggle for equal rights for African-Americans. He passed away in 1934. The Trotter Multicultural Center was created in 1971 and took Trotter's name in recognition of his work for equal rights.
Bernstein, meanwhile, served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and served on the board of directors for Bend the Arc (formerly the Jewish Funds for Justice), a national public foundation working for a more fair, just, and compassionate America. He and his wife provided financial support for UM buildings and programs in the past, including the University Musical Society, the UM Museum of Art, and the Center for the Education of Women.
The hall didn't appear out of thin air. Rather, it's the byproduct of extensive outreach and input from a variety of campus constituents, including four town hall meetings on campus, eight focus group sessions, benchmarking to other college and university campus multicultural centers, a survey of students, and student input from a broad, diverse group.
The hall will be situated in the heart of UM's campus and groundbreaking will take place in the fall. This gift is part of the university's Victors for Michigan $4 billion campaign, which includes a goal of raising $1 billion for student support.
At the end of the day, the gift points to a much larger challenge facing increasingly diverse universities across the country. While terms like "integration" and "assimilation" are thrown around a lot, we can all agree they're nonetheless admirable aims, right? Right. And so UM, along with Bernstein and Rachel Bendit, believe that its new multicultural center can help achieve this goal.
"The first step in understanding people who might be different from yourself, or who you perceive as being different, is to have an opportunity to interact with them in an everyday situation," said E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life.
"Mark and Rachel are making this happen for our students."