Cornell University

March 25 2010

American Ideals

Jacobs recalls "wonderful teacher" who inspired protection of civil rights

Irwin Jacobs was busy his final year at Cornell. 

He was married to Joan Jacobs, taking a heavy course load and leading a senior project group building a digital differential analyzer. He was also working part time testing vacuum tubes to pay for living expenses. 

Jacobs was determined, though, to take the highly recommended "American Ideals" course taught by Professor Milton Konvitz, an ILR School founder. 

Starting with the influence of the Old Testament, the professor led students through the evolution of the U.S. Constitution and its impact on U.S. Supreme Court decisions. 

Jacobs said Konvitz "opened up a new area of thinking" for him. 

"He really was a wonderful teacher. He gave us much greater insight into the political scene, the legal scene and our heritage," said Jacobs '56, a resident of San Diego, Calif. 

"Whenever I mention him in a conversation with someone who knew him or had taken the course, they invariably comment on the impact he had on their life as well," he said. 

"I entered the course with liberal beliefs, but they were greatly strengthened by discussions throughout the course and have continued to influence my life in a very positive fashion," said Jacobs, a co-founder of Qualcomm Inc., a Fortune 500 provider of wireless technology and services. 

As a high school student in New Bedford, Mass., Jacobs was advised against studying science or engineering by his guidance counselor. Jacobs was told the fields did not hold good futures. 

That's why Jacobs spent his first three semesters at Cornell in the School of Hotel Administration. 

He transferred to the five-year Electrical Engineering program and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1956. Three years later, he received a doctoral degree from MIT. 

Jacobs and his wife, Joan Jacobs '54, a College of Human Ecology graduate, are well known for their philanthropy, which includes a $30 million scholarship and fellowship endowment for the College of Engineering. It is the largest gift pledged specifically for scholarships through Far Above…The Campaign for Cornell. 

In 2006, the Jacobs founded the annual Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecture at ILR. It will be held on April 27 this year. 

Free and open to the public, the talk by Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale University begins at 4:30 p.m. in 105 Ives Hall. A reception will follow. 

Konvitz, a leading authority on constitutional and labor law, and civil and human rights, was a professor at the ILR School and the Cornell Law School from 1946 until retiring in 1973. 

An estimated 8,000 students took the "American Ideals" course taught by Konvitz, who died in 2003 at the age of 95. 

Jacobs, who is active in the Democratic Party and a major supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anti-Defamation League and other organizations, said Konvitz was one of the most influential persons in his life. 

"Since I took the course during the time of Joseph McCarthy," Jacobs said, "a key but perhaps unintended lesson occurred at the beginning of each lecture, including, of course, ones on Marx, when Professor Konvitz felt obliged to note that the discussions were academic and that he was not advocating a particular philosophy." 

"The lesson," Jacobs said, was that "we must continue to actively protect our civil rights."