History & Traditions

Who are the Cockrells?

With a unanimous vote and authoritative strike of the gavel, the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System on July 11, 2007, renamed the College of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin the Cockrell School of Engineering. The school’s new name honors the late Ernest Cockrell Jr., his wife Virginia and the Cockrell family of Houston, whose estate has developed the equivalent of a $220 million endowment for the school.

Cockrell family support and additional funds their gifts have generated have contributed greatly to the international stature the school enjoys today.

A Pioneer’s Pioneer

When Ernest Cockrell Jr. graduated from the university in 1936, he was already a pioneer. He was a member of the engineering school’s very first class of students in the new petroleum engineering department, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And he was already a native son of a pioneering state—Texas—which launched the petroleum industry as we know it today.

But Cockrell was also a pioneer of another sort.

He began giving to his school of engineering at a time when most people didn’t believe that public institutions needed or should receive private funding. And giving to The University of Texas in the 1970s was especially extraordinary, since its Permanent University Fund (PUF)—an endowment established with oil revenues accruing on university-owned land—was commonly thought to have already made the institution rich. In fact, proceeds from the PUF endowment support campuses across the entire University of Texas System as well as the Texas A&M University System and account for less than 1.5 percent of the Cockrell School expenditures.

“Dad recognized what only public universities could achieve: a broad-based education for a great many students. And his goal was that public education also be of tremendous quality. He was a person who was always interested in excellence,” explains Ernest Harris Cockrell, or “Ernie,” Ernest Cockrell Jr.’s son.

“He recognized that the state had an obligation to fund the school adequately, but that funding would be subject to budgetary pressures. He understood that there would always be a necessity for additional funding to support excellence,” notes Virginia and Ernest Cockrell Jr.’s daughter, Carol Cockrell Curran.

A product of the depression, Ernest Cockrell Jr. was a self-made man, as was his father before him. Both earned their fortunes in the oil business. After working a short time for Texaco, Ernest Cockrell Jr. formed both an oil company, Producer’s Oil, and a drilling work-over company. When his father passed away in 1947, Ernest Cockrell Jr. also took over his father’s oil business. “I believe he was aware of what his engineering education had enabled him to do, and he felt he was pretty fortunate. Going to UT and acquiring that engineering background gave him a deep sense of the power of education,” says Ernie, who now serves as president of the Cockrell Foundation.

While he was a founding member of the school’s advisory board in 1957 and provided valuable insight and professional expertise as the school grew, it was upon Ernest Cockrell Jr.’s untimely death in 1972 at the age of 57 that his truly visionary leadership came to light. His bequest was that half of the income that accrued from the Cockrell Foundation—which he and his wife had established to support various causes—would go to the university’s engineering school to establish chairs for faculty and scholarships for students.

Over time, through the bequests of Ernest Cockrell Jr. and his wife Virginia (BS ’36), the Cockrell Foundation has funded more than half of the school’s 53 endowed chairs and each year awards about 300 undergraduate scholarships and 10 graduate student fellowships. “Dad knew that great institutions were built on great faculty and talented students and that the demand for them was such that you needed some way to attract the very best to Texas,” Ernie says.

And he was right.

Collaborative Excellence

The measurable impact of more than 30 years of Cockrell giving on the school has been considerable. The endowed chairs established by the Cockrell Foundation have enabled the university to attract and keep 30 engineering faculty who are members of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the engineering version of the National Academy of Sciences, established by Abraham Lincoln. The university has more NAE members than any public school except the University of California, Berkeley, and only MIT and Stanford have more. Cockrell scholarships have been equally successful in attracting excellence. The most recent freshman engineering class includes 70 National Merit Scholars and 100 valedictorians and salutatorians. U.S. News & World Report ranks the Cockrell School of Engineering’s undergraduate program ninth among the nation’s 364 accredited engineering programs and fifth among the public schools.

Of course the true measure of what Ernest Cockrell Jr.’s ongoing support has achieved is the accomplishments of the school’s 41,000 graduates, their contributions to the welfare and economy of the state and the country, their impact in their communities and the sum of their giving to their alma mater. Another measure is the contributions of faculty research to engineering theory and practice, the prestige of faculty among their peers and the value of the grants they attract that enable them to better society. Finally, the impact includes the start-up companies that congregate around a strong engineering school whose faculty and graduates are able to transition basic research into products, ideas and processes that drive the economic engine of Texas and the United States.

But Cockrell never expected that he, alone, would have such an impact. He envisioned there would be many other donors to the school—donors of both large and small amounts—whose gifts would be combined with his in order to achieve the excellence he knew the school was capable of achieving. And there have been many.

In the 30 years since the Cockrell Foundation began making gifts to The University of Texas at Austin, more than 10,000 alumni, friends and companies have supported the Cockrell School. Active donors range from alumni in their nineties to current engineering students. In the 30 years since alumni began contributing to Friends of Alec scholarships, almost two dozen alumni have never missed a year of giving to the program. Last academic year, alumni and friends of the Cockrell School gave a record $1.4 million to the school through Friends of Alec.

“By honoring Mr. Cockrell, we also honor the thousands of individuals who have supported our engineering programs financially along with Mr. Cockrell. Together we have worked to reach the high level of quality we enjoy now,” notes Ben Streetman (BSEE ’61, MSEE ’63, PhDEE ’66), dean of the Cockrell School.

What Ernest Cockrell Jr. would be most proud of, his son suggests, is not the grand sum of his own contributions, or even the naming of the school in his honor, but the gifts that others have given as a result of his inspiration. He had hoped that those who benefited from his giving would go on to be successful and would, in turn, feel the same debt of gratitude to the school that he had.

Beneficiary-Donors

John Graff (BSEE ’87), a Life Member of Friends of Alec, is one such “beneficiary-donor,” one of many who has both benefited from someone else’s giving and become a donor himself. Now vice president of marketing and customer operations with National Instruments, Graff held a Cockrell Scholarship his entire four years at The University of Texas at Austin. He says that the scholar ship defrayed the costs enough that he was able to concentrate on studying. “Thanks to the scholarship provided by the Cockrell Foundation, I was able to obtain a degree from one of the top engineering schools in the world, which has served as the foundation for a very successful career in the technology industry.”

Another Cockrell Scholarship recipient, Dr. Jean Yang (BSChE ’90), remembers that her family’s financial situation was such in 1985 that she believed attending a local college and living at home in Houston was her only option. The Cockrell Scholarship enabled her to go to the school of her choice—a school with a national reputation that launched her successful career. “The great thing about the Cockrell Scholarship was that it was granted for multiple years. That was wonderful stability to have in financing your education.”

Yang, a senior member of the technical staff at Spansion (a flash memory spin-off from Advanced Micro Devices), is proud to be a Life Member of Friends of Alec. “I especially like to know that my contributions fund undergraduate scholarships,” she says. She believes that continuing to attract students of high caliber to the school is essential. “The quality of a school is a collaborative effort—a school might have fantastic faculty, but they can only carry the students so far. If you get really smart, excited students in a classroom, they can do a lot on their own, they can contribute more in class and they can collaborate with faculty on research—you just get so much further.”

As Ernest Cockrell Jr. had imagined, Graff, Yang and many other successful engineers just like them are carrying on the tradition of excellence that he initiated. “Renaming the school honors Ernest Cockrell Jr. and his family for a dream of what the school could become,” says Dean Streetman.

“Generous people inspire other people to be generous. It grows exponentially,” Yang adds. “When I was in school I saw professors donating to their departments and I heard about students donating to endowments in honor of their teachers. If you had a good experience, it makes you want to give back when you are able to.”

The Cockrell School of Engineering

“Dad would have been overwhelmed at the prospect of having the school named after him,” his son believes. “It was never in his vision that he would be recognized in such a way.” What he might have done, once he recovered from the incredulity, says Ernie, would be to sit back and say, “Okay, now let’s make this Cockrell School of Engineering even better.”