Air Force Secretary named as president of UT El Paso, despite protests

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of UT System

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson was named president of UT-El Paso last Tuesday by the UT System Board of Regents, despite protests from activists, students and community members who raised concerns over Wilson’s anti-LGBTQ voting record.

After the March announcement of Wilson as the sole finalist for the UTEP presidency, a Change.org petition asking the Board of Regents to remove her as a finalist began circulating. The petition currently has more than 10,600 signatures.

The petition cites a page from LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD’s website about Wilson, pointing to Wilson’s vote for an amendment banning same-sex marriage, votes against LGBTQ anti-discrimination legislation and reversal of an Air Force LGBTQ anti-discrimination ruling in 2018. Others have also raised concerns about her ability to lead a Hispanic majority institution due to her opposition to a 2006 bill to provide $84 million in grants to schools serving predominantly black and Hispanic populations and her connection to the Trump administration.

 

“For many students and staff, the university is a safe space to become and be freely who they are,” petition creator Cristina Calvillo-Rivera said in the body of the petition. “Hiring someone that clearly does not reflect the ability to support that for LGBTQ students is harmful. Moving Heather Wilson as the sole finalist, and potential next president of UTEP, endangers the university’s ability to earnestly act on and serve in the best interests of all students.”

When questioned about her voting record in a press conference in El Paso, Wilson said her “general approach with respect to LGBT issues is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”

Wilson is succeeding Diana Natalicio, UTEP’s first female president and the longest-serving president of a major public research university in the United States Wilson was appointed as Air Force Secretary by President Donald Trump in 2017 and has previously served as cabinet secretary in the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

In a letter to Chancellor James Milliken, Wilson said she was committed to “to opening the doors of opportunity and keeping them open for everyone” and that she “will be focused on student success, advancing meaningful discovery and connecting the university to the community.”

“Each of these institutions have non-discrimination policies very similar to that of UTEP and the State of Texas,” Wilson said in the March 19 letter. “I have always complied with these policies and have administered their implementation.” 

Wilson was unavailable for comment.

“Secretary Wilson has had a remarkable career of firsts in education and national service, and it’s easy to understand why the search advisory committee and the board have been so impressed,” Milliken said in a press release. “She has the experience, talent and leadership to build on UTEP’s exceptional momentum.”

Eden Klein, a UTEP graduate and current UT Law student, spoke against her appointment at the Board of Regents meeting, citing Wilson’s voting record and lack of experience with large-scale research universities like UTEP.

“She is unqualified. She is harmful to the LGBT community and she is corrupt and harmful to the UT-System,” Klein said at the meeting. “Black, brown and LGBT students will never feel safe on a campus knowing it’s being presided over by someone who has consistently voted against them.”

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, has also opposed her appointment.

“The selection of this sole finalist was the result of a flawed, closed search process that shut out any substantive input from the community,” Rodríguez said in an official statement. “With this particular finalist, the Regents either failed to anticipate the obvious concerns about Secretary Wilson’s past voting record and the opposition it would engender or simply did not care.”