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Some El Pasoans Are Skeptical Of UT Regents' Sole Candidate For UTEP President

Former Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson talking to U.S. Air Force students in 2017.
NDU Audio Visual/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Former Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson talking to U.S. Air Force students in 2017.

From Texas Standard:

The longtime president of the University of Texas at El Paso, Diana Natalicio, is stepping down after more than 30 years on the job. But some are concerned about the UT System Board of Regents' choice as the sole finalist to replace Natalicio as UTEP president, Heather Wilson.

Wilson is a former secretary of the Air Force, former president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and served as a Republican member of Congress from New Mexico, for over 10 years. Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri, vice president of UTEP's Faculty Senate and director of the university's Women and Gender Studies program, says the regents' candidate search was an opaque process.

"We know that there's a search committee, a hiring firm, that identifies candidates," Núñez-Mchiri says. "[But] we don't know how diverse that poll was."

She says the search committee consisted mainly of business leaders appointed by the regents, and that El Pasoans and university employees were largely left out of the process.

"We did have members of the faculty represent us – mostly former presidents of the faculty senate, but, of course, they were [in] the minority; they were not on the majority of the search committee," Núñez-Mchiri says.

She also says those representatives had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so they can’t share what they learned during the process.

This approach isn’t new. The search for UT San Antonio’s new president in 2017 was also fairly secretive. Núñez-Mchiri says that makes sense in order to protect candidates’ current jobs. But she says the problem is that the way the regents went about finding candidates wasn’t shared with the community.

“So what do people do? They Google the person and then we pull up the … voting records, and we find that that voting record has been problematic,” Núñez-Mchiri says.

She characterizes Wilson’s Congressional voting record as “anti-LGBT.” She also says Wilson has voted against Pell grants – the federal financial-aid program that gives money to college students who come from families with limited incomes.

“When we have a student demographic with a household income of $24,000, average, that’s a concern,” Núñez-Mchiri says.

Wilson was appointed by President Trump as Air Force secretary – a background that could put her at odds with El Paso’s political culture.

“We’re at the epicenter of major humanitarian challenges: immigration, civil rights, children being separated from their parents. And then we get someone that has been in alignment with the current administration that clearly doesn’t understand what we have been going through,” Núñez-Mchiri says.

Wilson will visit UTEP before the Board of Regents’ final vote on her appointment, during which she’s expected to meet with university faculty, staff, students and members of the local community. But Núñez-Mchiri says she doesn’t expect that will change her mind about Wilson.

“I’m very hesitant,” Núñez-Mchiri says. “I’m a social scientist; we want to look at patterns, and hope that she will break those patterns, and hope that she will break the negative patterns.”

Written by Caroline Covington.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.