Remembering Civic and Georgia Tech Giant Joseph R. Bankoff

Posted June 14, 2024

Joseph R. Bankoff was many things to many people. He was a lawyer, an advocate for the arts and humanities, a civic leader, an academic with a long record of service to Georgia Tech, a caring mentor, a loving father and husband, and even a private pilot who particularly enjoyed taking his glider up over the Rockies in Colorado.

“Throughout his life, Joe followed his own path — non-traditional, to be sure,” his family said. “He often described himself as a recovering lawyer, a failed arts executive, or a fake academic when in fact, he excelled in all those careers. His expertise ranged across law and policy, economic development, government legislation, fiscal planning, education, nonprofit management, and global issues.”

Bankoff, the former chair of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs who previously held numerous other Georgia Tech roles across campus, passed away June 10 after a yearlong cancer fight. He leaves an enormous legacy of service to Georgia Tech, the Atlanta metropolitan region, and beyond.

“Joe had the special ability to articulate a strategic vision as well as build consensus and enthusiasm in support of that vision,” said Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera. “As an academic leader, he helped to elevate Georgia Tech’s national profile through the relationships he fostered and the collaborations he championed. I can think of few who exemplify our motto of Progress and Service as well as Joe Bankoff.”

‘A Keen Vision’

While newer members of the Georgia Tech community may associate Bankoff with the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, where he served as chair from 2012 to 2019, his connections to Georgia Tech go back to the 1990s when he worked with the Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology, a Georgia Tech research center aligned with the Georgia Research Alliance.

His abiding interest in emerging technology led to involvement with the College of Computing, where, in 1998, he was named vice chair of the College’s advisory board.

In 2009, while Bankoff was still president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, then-Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson asked him to work on the Institute’s next strategic plan.

In 2012, former Provost Rafael Bras tapped Bankoff to lead the Nunn School, even though Bankoff was not a traditional international affairs scholar. Bras felt Bankoff was the perfect figure to help lead the School in a new direction. This hunch paid off in numerous ways, including Bankoff’s creation of a program that ultimately resulted in the hiring of former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove and Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, former vice chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, as distinguished professors of the practice.

While chair, Bankoff worked tirelessly to expand the School’s profile and taught more than a dozen classes, including Careers in International Affairs, Global Issues and Leadership, Science & Technology and International Affairs, Law and Global Innovation, and several directed studies courses.

Nunn School Chair Adam Stulberg described Bankoff as an open-minded and gracious mentor and an entrepreneurial and inclusive leader.

"Joe served as chair at a crucial inflection point for the Nunn School, deftly navigating paths to enhance our prominence both on and off campus that continues to pay dividends,” Stulberg said. “He possessed a keen vision for integrating the social and policy sciences with world-leading STEM research and teaching, augmented by a natural instinct for connecting diverse people and ideas with bold action.”

Over the years, Bankoff also was the chair of the nominating committee for Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage and served on Georgia Tech’s Institutional Review Board, the Georgia Tech Research Institute Advisory Board, and the Georgia Tech Arts Board.

Advocate for the Arts and the Olympics

Beyond Georgia Tech, Bankoff was a noted litigator with a significant portfolio of technology, patent, and media law cases, including a win before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark First Amendment case.

His engagement with the Atlanta arts community goes back decades. He helped raise money for the 1983 expansion of the High Museum, joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra board in 1996, and became president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center in 2006. 

"The arts have been important to me all my life," he told Playbill at the time. 

He was also a central figure in the movement that staged the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. As a lawyer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Bankoff negotiated television rights to the broadcast and also commissioned an orchestral piece, “Summon the Heroes,” by famed composer John Williams, for the event. He was later awarded the Centennial Medal for Distinguished Service to the International Olympic Movement.

His many other awards include the Justice Robert Benham Award for Lifetime Service from the State Bar of Georgia, the Anti-Defamation League Award for Lifetime Public Service, the Phoenix Award from the city of Atlanta, the Harry West Visionary Leadership Award from the Atlanta Regional Commission, and, most recently, the Dean’s Appreciation Award from the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

“I will miss Joe,” Bras said. “I will miss his ever-present smile, his selfless dedication to his causes and friends, his deep understanding of the human spirit, his optimistic outlook, and his understated intellect. Joe made all of us better, and we are all worse off with his passing.”


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Contact For More Information

Michael Pearson
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts