Reflections: As he steps down as chair of the Nunn School, Joe Bankoff looks back on 47 years involvement with Georgia Tech

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By Paul DeMerritt and Rebecca Keane

At the end of June 2019, Joseph E. Bankoff transitioned from chair of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs to the role of professor of the practice. The change capped seven years of leadership that, in collaboration with faculty, brought cohesion, identity, partnerships, and a stronger reputation for the School, both on campus and beyond. The Nunn School has expanded Georgia Tech’s influence nationally and globally, and furthered its capacity to facilitate innovative learning, research, and scholarship.

While June 30 marked his departure from an official leadership role, Bankoff will remain a formidable asset for the Nunn School, the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and for Georgia Tech, continuing a relationship that spans 47 years and includes advising our last three presidents, as well as our provosts.

Bankoff arrived in Atlanta in 1972, joining the law firm King & Spalding as an attorney, and developing specializations in telecommunications and intellectual property. He soon met Georgia Tech alumni and leaders and began to understand the Institute’s role in the state.

“I began to deal with the fact that there was something special about Tech, just based on the rabid alums that were here in town,” he said.

Those interactions ramped up in the 1980s when Georgia Tech President Patrick Crecine asked him to work with Bill Reed to help develop a telecommunications research profile for the Institute. That led to the founding of GCATT, the Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology, and to Bankoff’s involvement in other key areas:  helping institutionalize Georgia Tech’s intellectual property rights working with Provost Jean-Lou Chameau; handling contractual and broadcasting rights for Georgia Tech’s and Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Olympics; working with College of Computing Dean Peter Freeman to organize the first Sam Nunn Policy Forum on information security in 1998; co-chairing with Tom Noonan the College of Computing Advisory Board; chairing the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage Committee; and, at the request of President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, bringing an outsider’s perspective to shaping a strategic plan for Georgia Tech that imagined an enlarged innovation zone in Midtown.

“Joe Bankoff is one of those rare individuals who knows Georgia Tech thoroughly both from the outside and the inside. The energy, expertise, and professionalism he brought to so many different roles at the Institute — and to the city of Atlanta — were truly impressive,” said President Peterson. “Whether working in legal, civic, or artistic circles, he always carried a compelling, forward-looking vision into the job, so it was no surprise when he did just that at our Sam Nunn School of International Affairs in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Through his leadership, he greatly enhanced Georgia Tech’s capacity to train our students to become culturally aware global citizens and skilled leaders in both policy and technology.”

Bankoff’s deep engagement with the Institute, his expertise in technology-based issues, and his international experience and connections made him an astute, if unusual, choice to chair the Nunn School.

“Joe's appointment was originally envisioned as transitional. We felt that he had strong management skills and a great eye for untapped opportunities, both of which we needed at that point for the Nunn School,” said Ivan Allen College dean Jacqueline Royster. “What became his seven years as chair marked an enabling of ambitious goals and the making of significant progress in the Nunn School’s trajectory of excellence. I consider it our good fortune that Joe was on our team.”

Initiatives supported by Bankoff were the creation of a first rate external advisory board; plans to sustain cutting edge courses and key programs such as the Sam Nunn Security Fellowships; the completion of funding for the Sam Nunn Chair; and establishing the Neal Family Chair endowment to seed startup grants for faculty research with a goal to prompt larger grant funding such as the Carnegie Corporation grant to study nuclear instability.

Bankoff also worked to foster robust cross-Institute collaborations, and to elevate the profile of both the Nunn School and Georgia Tech in Washington, D.C. He attributes the connections made to the critical assistance of Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator for whom the school is named, and to the new Nunn School Advisory Board. These were keys to bringing on board the distinguished professors of the practice who have joined the School in the past four years from top leadership appointments in government and corporate entities. These include two Georgia Tech alumni - General Philip Breedlove (U.S. Army, ret.), who served as NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe and as former commander of the U.S. European Command, and Admiral James Winnefeld (U.S. Navy, ret.), the ninth vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall came onboard following her role as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy. Dennis Lockhart joined at the close of his term as president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Robert Bell joined the School after many years in leadership posts specializing in U.S government security and defense, and John G. Rice from his role as a global executive with General Electric.  

“This was an effort to create an asset, not just for the school, but for Georgia Tech,” Bankoff said. “Hiring these distinguished professors of the practice has been really impactful for both our students and our faculty and it makes people feel like they are working at a place that really knows what matters. Additionally, these faculty allow students to see how the study of international affairs fits in the spectrum of technology impacts between global development and global security.”

Bankoff also cites the expansion of the Visiting Military Fellows program, an initiative of Nunn School Associate Professor Margaret E. Kosal, to encompass all three branches of service as another landmark enrichment that enables international affairs students, as well as others on campus, to learn firsthand from practitioners.

“Learning isn’t just about researching and admiring a problem, you really have to live in it. So I think we need to spend a lot more time with people in our classrooms who have other kinds of experience and that’s why the addition of our military fellows has been a big deal,” Bankoff said.

Bankoff has also overseen key and diverse tenure track faculty hires with a goal to create and strengthen the global development side, as well as the security studies side of the School’s research and teaching enterprises.

“Joe brought to the position of chair a pragmatic and entrepreneurial zeal that was contagious. By the end of his tenure, he inspired the faculty and students to integrate practical experiences and new tools regularly into the curriculum,” said Adam Stulberg, professor and incoming chair of the Nunn School. “He also set the table for broadening and deepening the School's cross-disciplinary offerings in global development, global leadership, and science, technology & international affairs. In short, Joe's tenure as chair marked a fundamental shift in the trajectory of the School that stands to resonate across the broader Georgia Tech community for years to come.”

Cross campus and global collaborations have been a key thrust of Bankoff’s leadership of the Nunn School. He worked with the Schools of Mechanical Engineering and City and Regional Planning (SCaRP) to develop new curricular offerings such as the new Global Development minor. This cross-disciplinary minor teaches students to take a holistic approach to concepts, theories, applications, and tools used in the global development community. This important collaboration required coursework to create bridges between units, not only within the Ivan Allen College, but also units throughout campus. The courses also offer students opportunities to contribute professionally to real world issues such as those pertaining to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Other cross-collaborations included a Cybersecurity Summit in 2017 featuring Admiral Winnefeld and jointly organized with Scheller. More recently he has worked with Distinguished Professors of the Practice Dennis Lockhart and John Rice in the creation of three Strategic Infrastructure Dialogues. These featured various strengths of Georgia Tech and have created a credible forum in which Georgia Tech can contribute to efforts which address the global challenges of infrastructure.

He leveraged faculty joint appointments to further integrate the international affairs curricula through the 2016 hire of Alberto Fuentes, who is jointly appointed in SCaRP. He partnered with Professor Jon Colton in Mechanical Engineering on the development of a minor in Global Development. He facilitated the appointment of Michael Best, an associate professor in international affairs and interactive computing, to a four-year appointment as founding director of the United Nations University Institute on Computing and Society (UNU-CS). That also brought about UNU-CS internships for students and spurred the creation of an interdisciplinary computing and society research center that Best is establishing at Georgia Tech with computing professor Ellen Zegura.

“The idea behind these types of collaborations was to move the Nunn School from being just another column within the matrix of Georgia Tech to a horizontal stripe across a lot of things, and that has been one of our overall objectives, and one I think we have addressed with some success,” Bankoff said.

Such initiatives paid off in a very positive Academic Program Review (APR) in 2016.

“We operate almost uniquely as a school of international affairs in a technology institute at the boundary layer between big technology and its implications and global problems,” said Bankoff. “A 2011 APR identified a number of substantive challenges and I wanted to stay to get us through the 2016 APR with a strong rating and that's what happened. The 2016 APR reviewers were really impressed and highlighted the near unique position we occupy among our peers.”

The School has continued to strengthen its reputation during Bankoff’s tenure, leveraging its long-standing membership in the prestigious Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA).

“Our membership places us alongside Yale, Harvard, Georgetown, Michigan, Texas, Texas A&M, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and Sciences Po in Paris – we’re one of only 38 worldwide members,” Bankoff said. “We are respected, in part, because the Georgia Tech brand is so strong globally, but in addition to that, because Senator Nunn is revered globally, particularly in the areas of military preparedness, nuclear security and global security. Thus, our brand coupled with what we do and where we do it make the School highly regarded.”

Bankoff has also been pushing to raise the Nunn School’s profile in Washington –  a priority for its reputation and effectiveness in both its research and education enterprises, as well as for the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

In development is a semester in Washington for students. Two caveats are that the program must pay for itself and, said Bankoff, “it must be an Institute initiative.” He is optimistic about success on both points, especially with President Cabrera coming on board from George Mason University in Washington. The program will get underway within a year or so.

“Joe Bankoff really has done a remarkable job in taking the Nunn School to another level,” said Senator Sam Nunn.

Bankoff will still play an integral role in the Nunn School’s activities as a professor of the practice. He will continue to teach his course, Global Issues and Leadership. He will continue working with faculty in the Nunn School and the School of City and Regional Planning to develop a one-year master's in global development and another one-year master’s in science and technology.

“The Nunn School is working to package programs for people that are going to be in their 40s, as well as people that are in their 20s, for additional certifications and for skill building and refreshers,” he explained. “We're really moving towards the notion of a continuous learning environment, and that is inherently collaborative.

Bankoff is planning to develop another course based on lectures he’s given around the world on law and innovation that will focus on the global legal, cultural, and policy conflicts that impact innovation. Also on his radar is work with other distinguished professors of the practice to create a “Nunn Council” in order to leverage their collective expertise and engagement with Georgia Tech.

Beyond Tech, Bankoff will continue as an engaged Atlanta civic leader. He has served as president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center and as chair of the Midtown Alliance. He is now chairman of the Fulton County Arts Council and board chair of the Georgia Foreign Trade Zone. But it is his last seven years at Georgia Tech that he feels are one of the brightest highlights of a long career. In his final communication as chair, Bankoff summed up his career at Georgia Tech, and hailed the opportunity to shape the future of the Nunn School:

“I have been involved with Georgia Tech for more than 30 years working closely with three presidents and various centers, institutes, committees, provosts, dean, school chairs, and faculty. We have been blessed with remarkable leadership, vision, and commitment to excellence. Georgia Tech and the Nunn School will now have new leadership that will continue this remarkable trajectory. I am grateful to be able to continue to be a small part of this promising future.”


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