Earlier this month, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson was chosen as the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso, with President Donald Trump’s Twitter blessings and praise.
But over the past few weeks, she’s faced backlash from students, professors and local activists over her anti-LGBTQ record and concerns about her ability to support the school’s diverse population. Her nomination has sparked a wave of protests, a petition that's grown to more than 9,300 signatures and now the official disapproval of the Texas Democratic Party.
“The most alarming part of all of this is seeing her voting record … and how opposed she is to the community she’s now about to lead,” said Hira Ali, a leader of the We the Student coalition, a group of student organizations and activists opposed to Wilson’s presidency.
The main point of contention is Wilson’s anti-LGBTQ voting record from her time as a congresswoman for New Mexico in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During her time in Congress, she voted for a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage and against bills aimed at protecting LGBTQ individuals from hate crimes and employment discrimination.
Additionally, her opponents have raised concerns about her ability to support UTEP’s mostly Hispanic student body, pointing to her March 2006 vote against providing $84 million in grants for colleges that predominantly serve black and Hispanic students. Some opponents also have criticized her vote that year to construct a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"If Heather Wilson didn’t support and represent all of her constituents while a NM congresswoman, how can she represent a diverse university?” Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, a UTEP alumnus and local LGBTQ advocate who met her wife at UTEP, said in a statement.
But Jan Puszynski, vice president of research at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, where Wilson was president for four years, said Wilson never made any anti-LGBTQ comments to him during her tenure.
“We didn’t have any issues. … She was always forthcoming against hate speech,” he said.
Except for her brief stint in academia, Wilson has spent most of her 35-year career working in national defense. She served as the director of defense policy and arms control for the National Security Council and as a defense planning officer for the U.S. Mission to NATO.
Wilson's visit to UTEP, just days after the UT Board of Regents announced that she was the sole finalist, spurred protests in the heart of campus. While Wilson was holding a private press conference, students, faculty and local protestors clustered outside and hoisted up rainbow flags and protest signs while chanting, “We deserve better.”
During that press conference, Wilson said her “general approach with respect to LGBT issues is to treat everyone with dignity and respect,” according to the Associated Press. She could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Calvillo-Rivera was circulating an online petition opposing Wilson’s nomination. On Thursday, UTEP students and local leaders delivered the petition to Paul Foster, the vice chair of the UT System Board of Regents and a businessman based in El Paso.
Although students requested an in-person meeting, Foster denied the request and said "the best and most productive way" to voice their concerns would be to meet with Wilson directly. He said Wilson would host question-and-answer sessions with UTEP student and faculty groups, along with other community members, the next time she visits the campus.
Days later, the El Paso County Democratic Party joined the opposition movement with a vote of no confidence against Wilson. On Friday morning, the state Democratic Party released a statement calling on UT Chancellor Milliken to withdraw Wilson’s nomination and look for other candidates.
“Heather Wilson’s nomination as a sole finalist shows a complete disregard for everything it means to be a part of the Miner “Glory Road” tradition,” Texas Democratic Party spokesman MarcoAntonio Orrantia said in a written statement.
The UT Board of Regents must wait at least 21 days before confirming Wilson's appointment — the earliest date would be Friday — but the board hasn't scheduled a meeting to vote.
Wilson plans to return to UTEP to meet with students, faculty and staff before the regents vote, according to UT System spokeswoman Karen Adler.
Meanwhile, student and community activists have been running phone banks and emailing Gov. Greg Abbott, regents and state legislators to register their opposition to Wilson becoming UTEP's next president.
Ali said student leaders are planning another on-campus protest on Wednesday to “let Wilson know that we’re not going to give in without a fight.”
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