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Philanthropists Mark and Susan Bertelsen

Champions of ‘the best kept secret’

Years ago, UC Santa Barbara was tucked away behind palm trees and graced with breezy dispositions. These were the 60swhen Greek societies inducted their inaugural pledges and Isla Vista was still largely undeveloped. It was the beginning of something special, a harbinger that the world’s “best kept secret” was soon to be exposed.

“There wasn’t much commercialism [in Isla Vista],” reflects Susan Bertelsen ’67. “Not much more than a little market and a taco stand,” she recalls.

Her husband Mark Bertelsen ’66 nods in agreement. “You know the path around the lagoon?” he asks. “My fraternity dug that path.”

The Bertelsens’ fondness for UC Santa Barbara is palpableafter all, UCSB is where Mark and Susan first met, and where they both forged lifelong friendships. “I have good memories of UCSB,” says Mark. “The education I had here was absolutely outstanding. We obviously have an attachment to the place.”

That attachment has grown over the years, characterized by the Bertelsens’ significant leadership. In 1994, Mark was elected to the UCSB Foundation Board of Trustees and formerly served as its chair; he was a member of the Trustee Advisory Committee on Isla Vista Strategies, and is currently a member of the College of Engineering Dean’s Cabinet and the Institute for Energy Efficiency (IEE) Director’s Council. Together, the Bertelsens’ philanthropy exceeds $2M, placing them into UCSB’s exclusive Gold Circle Society. And still their generosity seems to know no bounds.  

“We’ve explained to our children that the world we live in today…This is something that prior generations have allowed to happen and make possible,” explains Mark. “That’s certainly the way [Susan and I] were brought up. You should give back to your community,” he adds.

This social compact is an important one for the Bertelsensnot only in theory, but in practice. They pledged $1M to UCSB in 2005, which helped foster entrepreneurial education in the College of Engineering and support research at the Center for Information Technology and Society (CITS).  Their $1M gift also included the establishment of the Eugene Aas Chair in Computer Science named in honor of Susan’s father.

“[My father] was involved with nuclear testing in Albuquerque. He worked on the nose cone of the Polaris missile,” recalls Susan.  “It was very specific,” she laughs. 

Since 2005, the Bertelsens have provided seed funding for the IEE, supported COE faculty recruitment and retention, and graduate fellowships in the College of Letters and Science. Most recently, they endowed the Bertelsen Presidential Chair in Technology and Society, which will support a CITS Director whose scholarship examines the social impact of information technology.

“My whole professional work life has been dealing with technology companies that foster innovation in the United States,” Mark said back in 2005. “So there is a connection between our gifts to the College of Engineering, which fosters entrepreneurialism, and the Center for Information Technology and Society, which looks at the impact of technology on society.”

These days, the Bertelsens are recognized as UCSB’s early builders, those who exemplify the traits of excellence and innovation. They’ve witnessed the campus’s evolution over the years, and have contributed to its academic and financial development. In fact, Mark played a critical role in launching the university’s first-ever campaign, which recently achieved over $1B in support.

“At the time, those of us on the committee looked at the initial $350 million goal and asked ourselves, ‘Are we completely out of our minds?!’” chuckles Mark. “But then it gathered momentum.”

And indeed, UC Santa Barbara continues to gather momentum in its drive towards excellence and innovation. It seems that the Bertelsens are right on its heels, showing no signs of stopping in their extraordinary leadership and philanthropy.