Heather Wilson isn’t ready to lead UTEP

Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre

What were the University of Texas System regents thinking when they selected Heather Wilson as the only finalist for President of the University of Texas-El Paso?

On the positive side, her congressional experience could be helpful and in the 1980’s she was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a university of distinction. Her education is top notch.

Wilson’s only academic management experience is at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. If you never heard of it, don’t feel bad. According to Forbes, it’s ranked 388th among American Universities, while U.S. News & World Report gives it no ranking at all. This is not encouraging for those who want UTEP to improve its academic standing.

In addition, 80 percent of UTEP’s 25,000 students are Hispanic — similar to El Paso’s overall demographics.

Wilson ran for U. S. Senate in 2008 and 2012, rejected twice by New Mexico voters who lean Democratic. The South Dakota School of Mines has 2,809 students, but only 134 of them, or 4.8 percent, are Hispanic.

New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, which she represented, is 48 percent Hispanic, so she does have some experience dealing with minorities if not in an academic setting.

Can she relate to LGBT Students? Her decision-making record in Congress and as Air-Force Secretary would tell us “No!” That may all be past “politics,” but a UTEP President should want to attract as many good students as possible, and no group should feel unwanted.

UTEP, the only real university in a county of over 800,000 people, has pretty good academics, but that’s not enough to attract many students from Dallas or Houston. Author and radio host Joe “Nick” Patoski, my freshman year roommate in El Paso, had a much more plausible reason to attend UTEP. “It was the furthest we could get away from our parents, while still paying in-state tuition.” An imaginative new president could feature Joe Nick for marketing.

The new president will also have to mend perhaps the worst major college sports program in the country. You might not remember, but UTEP (then Texas Western) is the only Texas school that has won the NCAA championship. Of course, it’s easy to forget, when in most years it’s not ranked among the top 200 teams, and that that trophy has been in the case for more than 50 years. Football has always been horrid, but does it have to be?

Sports is more important than many imagine. It adds name recognition and attracts students. What experience does Ms. Wilson have running a sports program? I see none.

Despite a lackluster record, the University of Texas regents selected her as the only finalist. I can immediately think of more qualified leaders. Veronica Gonzales is a former state representative, now in the administration of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Recently retired House Speaker Joe Straus deserves recognition as perhaps the top statesman in Texas. He’s working on education issues and would have a wide range of support — even in my politically divided family. Both my brother-in-law, a Republican activist in San Antonio, and my liberal Democratic son, an Austin law student, are fond of him. That’s a family first! Attorney Benny Agosto, incoming President of the Houston Bar Association, is a capable non-controversial Hispanic leader, and yet another good choice.

It’s no surprise that many in El Paso are up in arms about Wilson. I’m asked about it in courthouse elevators, stores and online. Yes, I was student body president ages ago, but my only current UTEP connection is walking Shasharoosticus on its dog-friendly campus.

A petition drive has garnered almost 10,000 signatures against this appointment. Many are demanding a Hispanic president. While I disagree with using race or ethnicity as a requirement, the next president should speak Spanish and identify with our community.

Wilson has had a noteworthy career, but her background for this position is lacking. How about we alter the regents’ priorities? If they think she is so qualified, let them hire her as president of UT Austin. If she does well there, perhaps El Paso can reconsider.

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