AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — El Paso-area lawmakers are urging U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to reach out to concerned students ahead of the final vote on her nomination as the next president at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Wilson announced earlier this month that she was resigning as soon as her new position is finalized, but the former congresswoman faced backlash from UTEP students and local activists over her past voting record on LGBTQ rights, immigration and federal Pell Grants.
The University of Texas System Board of Regents voted March 8 to select Wilson as the only finalist for the job. UTEP has an enrollment around 25,000 students, with about 80 percent Latino.
UT system spokeswoman Karen Adler said in an email Tuesday that Wilson plans to return to UTEP after spring break, which is this week, and meet with students, faculty and staff, and community and business groups.
“The format will allow Secretary Wilson to meet face-to-face with all groups, and she intends to meet with as many as she can, both on the UTEP campus and the broader El Paso community,” Adler said.
Democratic state Sen. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso said he wants to hear what his constituents have to say before giving “any kind of unqualified statement about my support or nonsupport for her.”
“I’m hoping that she goes and faces the community and the community’s concerns, especially the LGBTQ community’s concern about her voting record and views toward the LGBTQ community,” Rodriguez said.
During a press conference at UTEP last week, Wilson said her “general approach with respect to LGBT issues is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.” She also praised the school for being a binational and bicultural university.
Michael Gutierrez, a 21-year-old freshman in the school’s Queer Student Alliance, said he doesn’t believe Wilson represents the school or its values. Gutierrez said neither his group nor Wilson have made an effort to meet with each other.
“We had a protest this past Monday when she visited the campus, she had time to go up to us and chose to go through the backways of our school and avoid us,” Gutierrez said.
Democratic state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, who chairs the House’s LGBTQ Caucus, said the concerns demonstrate the need for a re-examination of the selection process.
Gonzalez said her caucus will be meeting with Chancellor James B. Milliken on Wednesday to further discuss Wilson’s nomination.
Wilson has headed the Air Force since May 2017, making her President Donald Trump’s first Senate-confirmed service secretary.
She also served as a U.S. representative from New Mexico from 1998 to 2009, and was president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology from 2013 to 2017.
Wilson would be replacing Diana Natalicio who has served as UTEP president for three decades.
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