Irwin Jacobs Reminisces About UCSD’s Origins

Erwin Jacobs (left) and Professor Emeritus Stuart Brody (right) spoke at Muir College's 50th anniversary event. (Cody Smith / Muir College)

In honor of Muir College’s 50th anniversary, Irwin Jacobs, Sc. D., a founding college faculty member and large-scale donor, spoke on the evolution of UC San Diego and possibilities for its future.

“The world is changing very rapidly and it’s going to continue changing rapidly, and that will open up all types of opportunities,” Jacobs said on the event stage yesterday.

Jacobs, who is also the co-founder and CEO of Qualcomm, discussed the various stages of his life, including the entrepreneurial and philanthropic. After teaching at UCSD as a computer science professor from 1966 to 1972, Jacobs and his family donated $15 million to the university’s growing engineering school, leading to the school’s dedication of its name to him. In 2003, Jacobs donated $110 million to the school to support scholarships and fellowships.

From working as one of UCSD’s first faculty members at Scripps Institute, to building up his companies Qualcomm and Linkabit, to making his endowments towards the Jacobs School of Engineering, Jacobs spoke with nostalgia, encouragement, and hope for the university’s future generations.

Organized by Muir College and the UC San Diego Alumni, the event hosted a mostly full room of  alumni, students, and faculty. Other notable guests at the event included Assistant Chancellor Susan Sterner, Dean of Jacobs School of Engineering Albert Pisano, and Executive Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Simmons. Jacobs was joined by Professor Emeritus Stuart Brody, Ph.D, who had worked for the Division of Biological Sciences for 50 years. Both Jacobs and Brody were present at the dedication of Muir College in 1967.

Brody discussed three “distinct” characteristics of UCSD when he first arrived. One, the small graduate class he worked with was partaking in experimental molecular biology, a stark contrast to Brody’s experience at Stanford University. “There was a spirit here, a spirit of adventure that I thought was interesting every time I came down here,” Brody said in his speech, adding that the ocean also helped attract him to the campus.

Brody, who has been friends with Jacobs for over 50 years, then presented Jacobs, emphasizing Jacobs’ contributions not only to UCSD but also to the greater community of La Jolla and San Diego.

“Through all his stages of life, entrepreneurial, philanthropic, academic, et cetera, Irwin has always had a set of values and persona that transcends all of those activities in that he’s been a devoted family man and for me, at least, a gracious and thoughtful friend,” said Brody.

Jacobs then highlighted the instrumental keys to starting the university.

Both Jacobs and Brody agreed that the “spirit” of UC San Diego is an integral characteristic of the campus, which Jacobs claims to have transformed the atmosphere of La Jolla since the 1960s.

“I came here from MIT and the thing that I noticed the most when I came here was it was very small and there were very few people and that had very positive aspects,” Jacobs said. “For example, at MIT, I was mostly involved with people who were engineering because I was engineering, but here, there were so few people that you had to be involved with many people from all backgrounds. It was a very special aspect.”

The event also included an audience Q & A session run by Kyler Vaughn, third year Muir student and Chair of the Muir College Council. Vaughn presented Jacobs and Brody with gifts from Muir College, which included Muir-branded backpacks containing water bottles and t-shirts. Questions from the audience ranged from concerns about new graduates entering the job market to ethical issues of technological advancements. But Jacobs made it clear, as he reiterated throughout his talk, that a strong education was the key to success.

Lastly, Jacobs praised the college system at UCSD, remarking that its purpose has become evermore relevant in today’s academia and economy. According to Jacobs, the intent of the college system was to have separate disciplines designated to each college so that all students from all colleges would be easily and regularly exposed to other disciplines on campus. Jacobs observed that today’s economy is heading towards an embracement of interdisciplinary studies, reminding him of his first days at UCSD, during which he was constantly in contact with other disciplines due to the small class size in a way that benefited him in the long run.

“The key is getting a very good education and taking a lot of basic courses, a lot of mathematics, physics, engineering, because that’s going to last no matter how things change going forward,” Jacobs said. “The second key: just be open to change. It’s going to be happening. Look for possible opportunities within those changes. There’s all kinds of special things that will yet happen.”

Anabel King is a staff writer at The Triton.