Bill and Nancy Mortensen are concerned about the current state of public education, and they are leading by example as they invest in the training of high-quality teachers at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP). Lifelong residents of Southern California, the Mortensens serve on Dean Margaret J. Weber’s Board of Visitors at GSEP.
“I think that education has always been important, but I think it’s critical in today’s world,” Bill explains of his deep interest in public education. “When I was growing up, competition was much more limited than it is today. At the end of World War II, we didn’t have Germany competing against us economically, nor Japan, China, Poland, or France. They had been destroyed during the war, so people coming to work in that environment had it easier than we do today.”
What concerns Bill is not so much the competition that faces American workers today, it is the competition that is coming tomorrow. Bill continues, “If you read the book The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman, he warns of the enormous competition that will be coming from India, China, and around the globe. So a young person today cannot afford to not have a superior education.”
Bill and Nancy have raised six children in Los Angeles, all of whom attended a variety of public and private schools. Now with grandchildren in Los Angeles-area schools, the Mortensens feel like they have a good sense of how education has changed in Los Angeles through the years. “California schools were superior until 1970. We were the envy of the entire country,” Bill said. “Then, a couple of things happened: unions began controlling what took place in the schools, and I think that there has been a decline in the quality of education ever since.”
And the second issue? “Until the 1970s, if you attended any school, you would find that 95 percent—maybe even 100 percent—of the students spoke English. Now you can visit most any school in Southern California and find that there are more than a dozen languages spoken. That makes it much more difficult for teachers who are trying to get their points across to students who do not understand English.”
Nancy, in particular, is concerned with the safety issues that confront our schools and students today. “It used to be that you could send your children to church and schools and not worry. They were havens of safety. Now, it is not that way. Kids today are exposed to so much, good and bad. Last week, I heard on the news that there were students who were staying home because they had been threatened that something terrible like Columbine was going to happen at their school.”
The Mortensens were pleased when President Bush made education a central theme of his administration before the Iraq war. “I think that it is very important that President Bush made education part of his agenda,” Bill says. “I think that whoever is president over the next 10 to 20 years must make education a high priority. If we are going to be a successful nation, we have to have well-educated people. It is that simple.”
Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation, which focuses strongly on testing, has been controversial, especially with many teachers’s unions. “I don’t understand the controversy,” explains Bill. “Testing has been part of the education system for a very long time. Testing is good and valid. The military uses testing all of the time, and we think that is a good thing. We should test to ensure that students can be passed along to the next gradeâ€¦and certainly to graduate from high school.”
Nancy, a former kindergarten teacher, also finds the arguments made against NCLB’s testing requirements silly. “You have to test,” according to Nancy. “It is the measure for success, for both the teacher and the student.”
Bill and Nancy are longtime supporters of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and are proud of their friendships with the various superintendents who have been at the helm there. On the day of our interview, it was announced that current superintendent (and fellow GSEP Board of Visitors member) John Deasy had been hired to head the Prince George’s County, Maryland, school system of 125,000 students. The Mortensens were sad to see Deasy leave. But as they watched Deasy pack his bags, they were also watching with great interest another civic leader who is getting settled.
Antonio Villaraigosa, newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, vowed in several high-profile speeches in January 2006 that he would take the necessary legal steps to assume control of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Shortly after his announcement and follow-up meetings with LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer, Romer announced that he would leave LAUSD before the conclusion of the 2005-2006 academic year, a move that many interpreted as conceding that the mayor will likely be successful in his efforts to take over LAUSD or at least put up a formidable fight.
“I think it is a good thing,” Bill says of the potential takeover. “Maybe the mayor taking control could be the beginning of the turnaround for L.A. Unified.”
While the Mortensens have great concern for the ability of tomorrow’s U.S. workforce to compete with rising industrial powers such as China and India, their core concerns rest in the future of our democracy and America’s core values. Bill explains, “In a democracy, we count on the fact that people inform themselves about important matters. Democracy does not work if people do not do it. I think education is one of the most important things that takes place in our society and democracy. I also believe that it is very, very important for our young people to know the difference between right and wrong.”
Bill is proud to serve on the board of directors of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a Los Angeles-based organization started by Michael Josephson. The institute has created a character education curriculum called, “Character Counts!,” which it places in schools all across America.
Character education—the teaching of ethics and values—is a primary reason why Bill and Nancy support Pepperdine and GSEP. “I think that attending Pepperdine is the greatest thing that a person could do. I wish that every teacher in America could be trained at Pepperdine.”
When asked why they had chosen to invest in and support GSEP, Bill replied, “Those who choose to become teachers know that they will never be financially well-off. So I feel that the greatest way to be helpful to young people today is to help teachers graduate from Pepperdine with little or no student loan burden.”
Dean Weber, when asked to comment on the Mortensens’s support of GSEP, replied, “Bill and Nancy’s dedication to the future of America—our young people and the teachers who will train them—inspires me and sets an example for all of us. I am deeply grateful for their love of and commitment to the preparation of teachers at Pepperdine.”
Pepperdine salutes Bill and Nancy Mortensen for their deep faith, strong commitment to education, and concern for the future of America. The Mortensens’s gifts are ongoing examples to their fellow philanthropists in the U.S., and spending time with Bill and Nancy is always an encouraging and uplifting experience. In short, the Mortensens are heroes to the children of Southern California.