When Richard Bernstein was elected to the Wayne State Board of Governors, he was 28 years old, filled with a self-described youthful energy and spirit.
Eight years later, after deciding not to seek another term, Chairman Bernstein is saying goodbye to the university he’s affectionately looked after with the same energy and spirit as when he began.
“Richard has brought vigor and enthusiasm to the board,” said Gov. Eugene Driker, former chairman. “He feels passionately about many issues and has never been reluctant to express that passion in very personal terms.”
Bernstein, whose last BOG meeting was Dec. 8, leaves behind a legacy of fighting for students. In seven of his eight years on the board, Bernstein voted against raising tuition.
“No one was ever left guessing about his feelings on important issues,” Driker said. “He staked out a position and, like the able lawyer he is, argued forcefully for it.”
Driker said he and Bernstein, both lawyers, were sworn in on the same day and may not have always agreed on how to handle rising tuition costs. But their mutual admiration never waned.
“Richard has been an ardent spokesman for tuition restraint,” Driker said, “and, while he and I have often disagreed on the proper way to deal with how to keep the university great while keeping it affordable, I respected his articulate views on the subject.”
After being the only dissenter during this year’s tuition vote, Bernstein told The South End in June, “there should be an intensive emphasis placed on the fact that these are working students who are sacrificing so much to go to school.”
He still believes that and says Wayne State represents an idea that life can get better.
“Our students are the kind of people who have never had it easy and have always had it challenging and difficult,” Bernstein said. “And, yet, they keep pushing and they keep going because they are such extraordinary types of people.”
Gov. Diane Dunaskiss said Bernstein was committed to maintaining constraints on tuition and insuring increased financial aid in response to tuition increases that occurred.
“He built excellent rapport with our students,” she said, “and has been a
voice for their concerns.”
For those who aren’t aware, Bernstein is legally blind and has been since birth. As a student, he was in special education. He cannot drive or write — only able to read Braille. But he has never let it be an excuse for not going after whatever he sets his mind to.
His educational focus and perseverance is something to admire. In 1996, Bernstein received his Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude from the University of Michigan, where he was Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and student body president of the College of Literature, Science and Arts.
Three years later, Bernstein received his law degree from Northwestern University School of Law. But it didn’t come easy.
Bernstein couldn’t get into Northwestern’s law school without taking the LSAT. He refused to take the test, which he claimed discriminates against the blind, because it requires interpreting visual material such as graphs.
Like any aspiring lawyer, he built his case and convinced Northwestern to admit him based on his academic record, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation.
After graduation, Bernstein joined his father’s law firm in Farmington Hills, The Law Offices of Sam Bernstein, as a trial attorney, specializing in representing victims of personal injury or disability discrimination. He still practices law there, doing many cases pro bono.
Bernstein hasn’t just focused on overcoming academic and professional obstacles, either. He has completed 13 marathons, including an Ironman triathlon, which is “no easy feat for anyone, let alone a blind person,” Driker said.
When elected to the Board of Governors in 2003 for his eight-year term, Bernstein was the first blind person to run for statewide office in Michigan. He ran again this year on the Democratic ticket, but for something a bit loftier — Michigan attorney general.
Bernstein, who lost the Democratic primary to David Leyton, said he will not run again. Instead, Bernstein is set on something that will have a more global impact.
*‘Champion for their rights’*
The lawyer who is liked by just about anyone he meets is heading to the Middle East in January, in what will be one of three trips to advocate for the rights of disabled people around the world.
“My next focus is to really change people’s lives that have disabilities, on an international basis,” Bernstein said.
According to the World Bank, which assists developing countries through financial and technical assistance, people with disabilities in the Middle East and North Africa still face obstacles in being included in society alongside people without disabilities.
The World Bank’s report said poverty and people with disabilities in those regions – at least 30 million — are “inexplicably linked.” In addition to extreme poverty, there is also a severe stigma associated with disabled people in developing countries.
“The perception that people have of disabled people is that (they) have those disabilities because they’ve been cursed … or we are disabled because we are the product of an evil family,” Bernstein said. “That’s the general perception people tend to have.”
Bernstein’s interest started with a recent trip he took to Ecuador. He was invited by members of the country’s government, academia and media, with the goal to help change the mindset of how disabled people should be treated.
One way Bernstein has found to break down the barriers? Athletics.
“Within these societies, people have tremendous respect for athletic competition,” he said. “It’s something that is of great consequence and admired.”
Bernstein uses his 13 marathons and Ironman competition as a “basic discussion point … because people are unable to reconcile the fact that, ‘How can this person be cursed (and be) a great athlete?’”
After visiting the Middle East, Bernstein plans to travel to North Africa in February, followed by India in March.
Driker said the single greatest contribution Bernstein’s made to the board — and Wayne State — was sensitizing it to the burdens and needs of the disabled.
“He is a true champion for their rights,” Driker said, “and has made us all much more aware of what has to be done to be sure those rights are recognized and dealt with.”