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UT Regents Approve Air Force Secretary As UTEP President Despite Opposition

Gabriel C. Pérez

Despite objections from students and faculty, the University of Texas System Board of Regents on Tuesday unanimously approved Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson as the University of Texas El Paso's new president.

Before the vote, Board Chairman Kevin Eltife said he was confident Wilson would "do an outstanding job." 

Credit United States Air Force
Heather Wilson became secretary of the U.S. Air Force in 2017.

"We carefully reviewed the qualifications, past performance and professional activities of Secretary Wilson and in each case, we learned that she consistently carried out her duties as a mission-focused, values-driven, people-oriented leader, who led with the highest degree of integrity, intensity, focus and diplomacy," he said.

Wilson was chosen over three other candidates whose names were not released. She is the campus' first new president in more than 30 years.

Before becoming Air Force secretary, she was president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for four years. She also represented New Mexico's 1st Congressional District from 1998 to 2009.

"I think Dr. Wilson is an excellent choice," UT Board of Regents member Ernest Aliseda said after the vote. While she was at the South Dakota School of Mines, he said, "she focused on increasing the number of women and low-income, first-generation college students."

But senior Ana Fuentes said Wilson's voting record as a New Mexico congresswoman isn't what students at a majority-Hispanic campus would expect.

"She has voted against funding measures for African American and Hispanic students," Fuentes said. "We definitely have needs that are different than other universities and clearly from her voting record … I just don't think she would be in our corner."

Yolanda Leyva co-founded the grassroots nonprofit Paso del Sur, one of eight organizations that sponsored a petition against Wilson's candidacy. The petition had gathered more than 10,000 signatures by Tuesday morning.

"A future president that can continue this success that UTEP's been experiencing needs to be somebody that really understands higher education, that understands the challenges of living on the border, but also the advantages of living on the border," she said.

Before the vote, UTEP alum Christina Rivera, who helped start the petition, told board members she strongly opposed Wilson's nomination.

"Heather Wilson has voted for …  bills that have oppressed the LGBTQ community, so her very presence at UTEP – let alone the very possibility of her becoming president – is symbolic to people, including LGBTQ allies," she said. "It tells me – and thousands of others – that the UT Board of Regents did not consider her voting record."

Some El Pasoans also said they didn't think she had enough experience in higher education.

"The president would need to understand what it's like to lead a very diverse university, not only in terms of the people, but also in terms of the kinds of subjects that people can get degrees in," Leyva said.

She noted that the South Dakota School of Mines is much smaller than UTEP and doesn't offer as many degrees. She also pointed out that Wilson has never been a professor.

Community members also said they were frustrated with the process used to select Wilson.  Fuentes said she and other students felt "powerless" because Wilson was the only finalist named.

"We don't even know what the other options would be or even if these protests that we're having around campus or the petitions that we're having people sign [are having an effect]," she said. "What is the impact that those things can have if the Board of Regents has already made up their mind?"

In a UT press release, Eltife acknowledged criticism of Wilson.

"My colleagues on the board and I have listened to the concerns raised," he said, "but we also have considered Sec. Wilson's professional experiences over decades, each of which demonstrated she has always focused on the well-being and advancement of the people and communities she has served."

He said the board would work with Wilson to earn the "trust and respect" of people who opposed her. 

Wilson begins her appointment in August.

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