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Heather Wilson to resign as Air Force secretary, take job as university president

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson listens to opening statements during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 7, 2018.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 8, 2019

WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will resign as the service’s top civilian at the end of May once she is formally named the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso, she said Friday in a letter to President Donald Trump.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Friday named Wilson as the sole finalist for the position, and the board is expected to finalize her nomination for the university’s top position in a vote scheduled to occur in about three weeks. The board announced its unanimous decision to name her sole finalist Friday morning on their website as Reuters reported the news of Wilson’s imminent departure.

In her letter to the president, Wilson, 58, said she would leave her job on May 31 to “allow sufficient time for a smooth transition and ensure effective advocacy during upcoming” budget hearings on Capitol Hill. She said it had been a “privilege” to lead the Air Force for the last two years.

“I am proud of the progress that we have made restoring our nation’s defense,” Wilson said Friday in a prepared statement emailed to Stars and Stripes. “We have improved the readiness of the force, we have cut years out of acquisition schedules and gotten better prices through competition, we have repealed hundreds of superfluous regulations, and we have strengthened our ability to deter and dominate in space.”

Wilson, the 24th Air Force secretary, had been considered by some senior Pentagon officials to be among the top choices for Trump to nominate for defense secretary. Pat Shanahan has been serving as the acting defense secretary since Jan. 1, when Trump’s first defense chief Jim Mattis stepped down over stark differences in policy with the president.

But Wilson clashed with Trump at times, officials have said privately. She initially pushed back on Trump’s wish to develop a sixth military service, the U.S. Space Force. Eventually, Trump decided to place the proposed Space Force within the Air Force Department, similar to the Marine Corps’ relationship with the Navy Department. That was viewed as a huge victory for Wilson.

In 1982, Wilson was among the first women to graduate from the Air Force Academy. She later served for seven years as an Air Force officer after studying at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate.

Wilson served on the National Security Council for President George H. W. Bush and then served five terms in Congress as a Republican representing New Mexico’s first district from 1998 through 2009.

She was a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence. She also served on the House Armed Services Committee.

Before taking her job at the Air Force, Wilson was the president the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology from 2013 to 2017. She was that school’s first female president.

The Texas Board of Regents cited her accomplishments in leading civilian and government organizations as the top reason for selecting her. The board interviewed Wilson and other candidates for the position last week.

“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,” Regents’ chairman Kevin Eltife said in the statement. “Most importantly, she is deeply committed to student success and has dedicated her life to enhancing upward mobility opportunities for individuals.”

Wilson did not provide a specific reason for her resignation in her letter Friday, but she wrote she would be pleased to return to academia and be closer to her New Mexico home.

“American higher education needs strong leaders to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” she wrote to Trump. “… If approved by the regents, I look forward to returning to the West to help lead this fine institution.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson holds up a file as she answers a question about military acquisitions during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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