Telecommunications Pioneer Endows Two $3 Million Engineering Professorships

Irwin and Joan Jacobs’ legacy will advance biomedical and electrical engineering at GW.

June 26, 2024

Joan and Irwin Jacobs

Joan and Irwin Jacobs have created two $3 million professorships at GW Engineering.

Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and his late wife, Joan, endowed two professorships at GW Engineering to support the school’s research and teaching programs at the intersection of engineering and medicine. Qualcomm (QUALity COMMunications) pioneered the use of CDMA technology that revolutionized wireless communications to connect billions of people, including technologies to support human health and well-being.

The Jacobs made their generous gift before Joan's passing in the spring of 2024. The endowed professorships were their first gift to the George Washington University, where one of their 14 grandchildren earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in computer science at GW Engineering.

As signatories of the Giving Pledge, a public commitment to give the majority of one’s personal wealth to charitable causes, the Jacobs are well-known for their generosity, especially in their adopted hometown of San Diego. Their local newspaper dubbed Irwin the city’s “philanthropist in chief.” 

Philanthropy is a way of life for the Jacobs family that is centered around tzedakah, the Jewish tradition of helping the less fortunate. As children, Irwin and Joan placed coins in pushke, small boxes to collect charitable contributions, at home. Later, when college scholarships and fellowships supported their respective educations that provided the foundation for their extraordinary business success, they began to give back generously to schools where they studied, taught or had other connections.

An electrical engineer by training, which includes a master’s degree and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Irwin Jacobs started his career as a college professor—even co-authoring an engineering textbook still in use.

Academic associations turned to entrepreneurial collaborations. Jacobs co-founded and led Linkabit Corporation, a successful innovator and manufacturer of communications equipment, before selling it and co-founding Qualcomm in 1985. 

"During my career, Joan and I noted how engineering prepares students for success in a wide range of disciplines, and we focused a significant part of our philanthropy on engineering education," he said. 

"My 13 years in academia at MIT and the University of California San Diego convinced me of the importance of endowed faculty positions to support and recognize outstanding faculty," he added. "We were particularly impressed by the strength of our grandson's engineering education here at GW, so we were excited to expand the program by providing faculty support."

GW President Ellen M. Granberg described Jacobs as a “visionary engineer who has transformed how the world communicates and stays connected.”

“The fact that the Jacobs chose to create not one but two endowed professorships here at GW is a testament to the quality of GW Engineering’s faculty, staff and students, and we are honored to have their support. Their philanthropy will help GW push the boundaries of human potential by leveraging technical expertise and intellectual curiosity,” Granberg said.

GW Engineering Dean John Lach expressed great appreciation and enthusiasm for this gift. 

“Irwin Jacobs is a legend in the engineering world, so we are especially proud that he and Joan chose to make this investment in our school,” he said. "This gift will accelerate our emergence as a preeminent engineering school with recognized and differentiated strengths in high-quality education and high-impact research that leverages our competitive advantages and diverse community." 

Lach noted that GW Engineering's research expenditures have more than doubled since 2015, and recent grants such as the $20 million award establishing the Trustworthy AI for Law and Society (TRAILS) institute and major partnerships with the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the Office of Naval Research reflect the school’s growing research reputation. 

Excellence in education also remains a priority, with a particular focus on providing access and opportunity for all qualified students. Lach added that women accounted for nearly 45 percent of its last two undergraduate classes, which is almost double the national average, and 29 percent of students were underrepresented minorities. 

GW’s professorship fundraising match amplified the impact of the Jacobs’ gift and established two $3 million endowments, creating the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Professorship in Biomedical Engineering and the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Professorship in Electrical Engineering. Match funds were directed from GW’s sale of a partnership interest in GW Hospital.

“The Jacobs’ generous gift recognizes that GW is a robust community of scholars with the creativity and innovation to shape the future,” said Donna Arbide, vice president for GW’s development and alumni relations. “They are exemplary models of making a difference through their philanthropy. We appreciate their leadership and investment in recruiting, retaining and rewarding GW Engineering faculty, which already includes many society fellows and winners of early-career awards.”

Gifts to GW Engineering programs support scholarship and innovation that accelerate the technological advances and discoveries that drive our economy and improve the world.