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Former U.S. Secretary of State Emphasizes Integrity in Inaugural Distinguished Lecture Series

Rex W. Tillerson says he never intended to become chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. But, at some point, he said, “you realize that you have the capacity to do more and contribute more, not just for your own personal benefit but for your organization.”

As the inaugural speaker of the new Cockrell School of Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series, Tillerson discussed the topic of leadership and ethics in a global society. He talked about his ascension at ExxonMobil, emphasized the importance of energy innovation, especially in Texas, and reminisced on his time as a Texas Engineering student.

And one theme was central throughout his lecture and Q&A session — integrity.

“Leadership is not a position or title,” he told the crowd of students, faculty, UT leaders and invited guests. “Becoming a leader is what happens to those who embrace a life of integrity.”

The Distinguished Lecture Series, which aims to bring influential technology, business and policy leaders from around the world to the Cockrell School, offers students an opportunity to hear and learn from successful individuals at the top of their fields. The event is led by the school’s Student Engineering Council and supported by the Texas Engineering Executive Education division.

The inaugural event was held on Oct. 25, in the James J. and Miriam B. Mulva Auditorium in the school’s Engineering Education and Research Center.

“We are extremely excited about the launch of this distinguished lecture series — the first-ever event of its kind for our Texas Engineering community — and we are equally thrilled to have Rex Tillerson as the inaugural speaker,” said Sharon L. Wood, dean of the Cockrell School. “As an alumnus, Rex has been one of the Cockrell School’s most steadfast supporters, and as a global leader and an energy industry icon, he has a wealth of experience that will teach important lessons and offer critical advice to our students.”

The Q&A session with student leaders elicited memories from Tillerson’s time on campus and thoughts on being an engineer who pivoted to executive roles.

photo of rex tillerson speaking with students at distinguished lecture series

“I think almost all of you appreciate that while you’re learning a lot of technical specifics in the discipline you’re studying, and that is obviously crucial for you to go out and undertake the things that you’re going to do, what engineering really teaches you is a way of thinking.”

Throughout the lecture, Tillerson offered advice and lessons in management, being involved and how to use the engineering way of thinking to live a principle-based life.

“As scientists and engineers, you’ve worked hard and sacrificed much to get to where you are. You want your efforts to mean something beyond just a job,” he said. “It is true that a sound education certainly plays a part in one’s future success. But if you want to truly build a brighter future for the world, you must make the decision to live a life of integrity.”

He continued, “As an engineer myself, I have a special message for scientists and engineers: I think more than any other discipline, integrity is a value that must be a part of our every endeavor because of the direct impact our work has on others.”

Tillerson graduated from UT Austin in 1975 with a degree in civil engineering and joined Exxon Co., U.S.A. the same year as a production engineer. He spent his entire career with ExxonMobil until holding the position of U.S. Secretary of State under the Trump administration until March 2018. In 2013, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Tillerson has been a dedicated supporter of the Cockrell School and UT Austin for many years. He serves as a member of the school’s Engineering Advisory Board, the UT Development Board and the UT System Chancellor’s Council. He was named a Distinguished Engineering Graduate of the Cockrell School in 2006 and a UT Austin Distinguished Alumnus in 2007.

“This new lecture series offers engineering students an amazing opportunity to learn from and meet some of the most established leaders in their fields,” said Aashima Garg, president of the Student Engineering Council. “We are excited to collaborate with Cockrell School leadership to bring distinguished speakers to our campus, and we were honored to welcome Rex Tillerson back to the Forty Acres.”