Dr. Wilson: Athletics Are the ‘Front Porch of the Institution’
It’s been quite a weekend for Dr. Heather Wilson, from announcing her resignation as the Air Force Secretary in order to become the next UTEP President, to visiting El Paso over the weekend.
Prior to the conclusion of her trip to El Paso, Dr. Wilson addressed the media Monday morning prior to the UT Board of Regents' vote in 21 days to officially hire her as the University's President.
"I felt it was important to visit El Paso as the sole finalist for the Board of Regents," Dr. Wilson opened with during her media scrum. "I wanted to engage with the community. It’s been an absolutely wonderful weekend. Kindness is what I experienced most during this weekend. Kindness and welcomeness by the community."
Between meeting with local community members, including a meeting with her predecessor, UTEP President Dr. Diana Natalicio, Dr. Wilson was able to catch the Locomotive FC inaugural match on Saturday night—which she called "great fun"—and toured the campus for the first time.
As an Albuquerque native, Dr. Wilson had been in El Paso before but had never stepped foot on the campus prior to this.
"I got up early Saturday morning and before the sun got up, walked across campus. Photography doesn’t do justice on this campus. It’s absolutely gorgeous and well-kept," she said. "Welcoming, wonderful community. Look forward to engaging more, possibly before the 21-day period is up. My responsibility right now is to steer the Air Force budget through its consideration with the Congress. I look for a smooth transition if the Board of Regents approve."
Dr. Wilson revealed today that an executive search firm initially contacted her about this job, which she saw as an opportunity that might not come up again and added, "being a college president is the best job in America."
One of the things that particularly caught her eye at UTEP was the emphasis on access to higher education.
"I think people that define universities having to choose access or excellence create a false choice. Great universities in this country do both," she said. "One thing that bothers me is when universities define themselves as great because they exclude people. It’s an irony. UTEP doesn’t buy into that and it has shown that access and excellence go hand-in-hand. I think that’s the future of higher education in America and I think this university is leading the way. That’s what’s most appealing about this university to me and why I wanted to come here."
Previously, she helped South Dakota School of Mines and Technology athletics transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II when she was their university's president.
As far as athletics go, Dr. Wilson seemed optimistic in meeting Athletic Director Jim Senter and develop the connection of college athletics to the community.
"I have a lot of learning to do. I can tell you that athletics in many ways is the front porch of the institution to the community. It’s an important connection," she said.
"I know that athletic scholarships are one way students use their gifts to be able to get an education. That’s important. I keep [athletics] in context. I think the professionalization of sports at some larger universities have not helped. I think college sports are college sports. They should be events; should be the way the community and students engage with the university. They should be for fun but they should also be kept in context. The most important day for a college-athlete is when they walk across the stage."
- Dr. Heather Wilson on UTEP Athletics
Over the weekend, Dr. Wison's nomination has created controversy across the community for her political beliefs, affiliations with President Donald Trump and her previous opposition toward LGBTQ rights. Wilson addressed these comments with straight-forwardness and will be open to engaging with the community on these topics.
"My general approach with respect to the LGBTQ community is to treat everyone with respect and dignity," she said. "I think that’s what a leader should do with everyone at the university."
Outside of where Dr. Wilson held her press conference, students gathered to protest the finalist and her stance. The group, who developed a hashtag "#UTEPDeservesBetter" continuously chanted against the soon-to-be president and cited different legislation that Dr. Wilson voted for in the past.
"I look forward to engaging with the community and including students and student groups," Wilson said in response to the protestors. "I met with the President of the Student Government. [Want to] meet with students that want to meet with me. It’s important to meet with students and engage with them."
As far as immediate plans, Dr. Wilson does not have concrete projects set in stone but plans to first listen to faculty, staff and students, and then plans on implementing new ideas.
And as Dr. Natalicio winds down her final months of her 30-year tenure as the university president, Dr. Wilson wants to be a continuation of the Natalicio regime, instead of starting anew.
"I admired [Dr. Natalicio] from afar when I was a university president," she said. "A friend of mine told me once, ‘A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s.’ I really enjoyed my opportunity talking to Dr. Natalicio. I think she’s been a wonderful leader at this university. I hope to build upon the absolute best that she’s brought here."
To see the full press scrum: