Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson chosen as the next president of University of Texas at El Paso

Texas Tribune News

Heather Wilson.
Heather Wilson.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Heather Wilson, the 24th secretary of the Air Force, will be the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents unanimously approved the decision on Friday to name Wilson the sole finalist for the position. On the same morning, she tweeted the news of her departure from her current role and handed in a resignation letter.

“Today I informed the President I will resign as Secretary of the Air Force to be President of the University of Texas at El Paso,” she said in the tweet. “It has been a privilege to serve with our #Airmen—I am proud of the progress we have made to restore the readiness & lethality of #USAF.”

Her 35-year career has included a variety of defense and public sector positions, including on the National Security Council, the U.S. Mission to NATO and as a Republican U.S. representative from New Mexico.

“Dr. Wilson’s broad experience in the highest levels of university leadership, and state and national government – whether securing federal grant awards, advising our nation’s most important national research laboratories, raising philanthropic dollars or running large, dynamic organizations – will help ensure that UTEP continues its remarkable trajectory as a nationally recognized public research institution,” board Chairman Kevin Eltife said in a statement.

Wilson’s decision comes after Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who recruited her to become the Air Force secretary, quit in December over policy disputes with President Donald Trump. Some members of Congress have recommended her as Mattis’ replacement, but it’s unclear if Trump would’ve been on board. He has named the former deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, as acting defense secretary, but he has yet to nominate anyone for Senate confirmation.

Early on, Wilson critiqued Trump’s vision for a new Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military – a move that peeved the president last year, according to U.S. officials quoted in Foreign Policy. However, she backed his recent plan to create a Space Force within the Air Force.

In a series of tweets on Friday, Trump acknowledged Wilson’s decision to step down and congratulated her on her new position.

“Heather has done an absolutely fantastic job … as Secretary of the Air Force, and I know she will be equally great in the very important world of higher education,” Trump said. “A strong thank you to Heather for her service.”

Vice President Mike Pence and the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein echoed Trump’s praise with their own tweets.

Before ascending to the role of Air Force secretary, Wilson served as the first female president of South Dakota School of Mines & Technology for four years. Jan Puszynski, the university’s vice president of research, spoke highly of her work ethic.

“She’s phenomenal as a leader, and also I don’t want to call her workaholic, but she works all the time” he said. “You might see her in the office at 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock [in the] evening, and you might get an email at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning. She’s extremely dedicated and well organized.”

Aside from her four-year stint at the South Dakota school, most of her work experience has come from outside the education world.

But Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who studies state politics and government, said that her political background might prove useful in her new role: People in politics, like university presidents, have a lot of constituencies to please, so they have to be diplomatic.

“If you can leave the Trump admin without getting attacked by the president or any kind of major scandal, that’s a solid outcome,” he said.

Also, leaders of federal agencies or institutions have many of the same tasks as university presidents, he said, like managing budgets, maintaining staff morale and negotiating with figures inside and outside of the institution.

But there could be a learning curve, too, he said.

“University politics tends to be much more … consensual, where you find nearly unanimous agreement with things before moving forward,” he said. “Sometimes people who are in politics don’t grasp that.”

Wilson’s hiring follows a trend over the past decade of university presidents being drawn from non-educational backgrounds, like politics, the military, or business, said Dennis Jones, the president emeritus of the nonprofit policy group called National Center For Higher Education Management Systems.

“As states overall are backing away from their commitment to fund higher education, that means that institutions are looking doubly hard to raise money outside the traditional sources of students and the state, which means that fundraising gets to be increasingly important,” Jones said. “And ties to the business world et cetera is a positive.”

Wilson is expected to step down from her current position at the end of May to replace Diana Natalicio, who announced her retirement last May after three decades as president.

Natalicio, who was listed among TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2016, has been lauded as a transformative figure for UTEP, a commuter campus with a mostly Hispanic student body. Many colleagues have credited her with increasing access to higher education and boosting the university’s budget and research funding—meanwhile, UTEP’s national college rankings have steadily climbed under her watch. The El Paso Times called her “the voice, the strength, the sheer rock” of UTEP.

Wilson’s appointment can be made official after 21 days. State law requires a university president finalist be named for three weeks before a formal vote on a hire.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.