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A Texas city at the center of a controversy over President Donald Trump's calls for a border wall soon will have a Trump administration official become the head of its acclaimed university.
The University of Texas System on Tuesday formally appointed U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson as president of the University of Texas at El Paso despite opposition from some students and faculty.
Wilson, who is Trump’s first Senate-confirmed service secretary, is set to resign from her top position at the Air Force at the end of May — just in time to step into her new position in mid-August.
The former congresswoman, who served as a U.S. representative from New Mexico from 1998 to 2009, has faced heavy criticism from students at the El Paso campus and from local activists over her past voting record on LGBTQ rights, immigration and federal Pell Grants.
GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, slammed the University of Texas Board of Regents for its decision to officially appoint Wilson as UTEP's next president "without holding a public hearing about her disturbing past."
"[This] is a failure in process and transparency and a disservice to the students, faculty and alumni of the University of Texas,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said. “LGBTQ students should never have to question whether their university president supports them, and Heather Wilson's appointment is a slap in their face.”
Regents voted unanimously for Wilson after selecting her as the sole finalist for the position March 8. University of Texas at El Paso, called UTEP, has an enrollment of around 25,000 students, about 80 percent of whom are Latino.
“No institution means more to the future of El Paso and Juarez region than UTEP,” Wilson said in an emailed statement following the final vote. “Its deep commitment to providing access to education and excellence in research is a model for the nation.”
Five people from the university community, including two alumni and at least one professor, spoke against Wilson’s nomination before the final vote.
Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, a graduate who with her wife started a petition against Wilson's nomination that got 10,500 signatures, told NBC News she felt disenfranchised during the process leading up to her confirmation.
"Not even one regent listened to us. Not even one regent listened to the overwhelming opposition," she said. “How is it that a person who literally has no experience of leading a diverse campus, how are they allowed in?”
For Calvillo-Rivera, the placement of a Trump political appointee as the president of the university with an overwhelmingly Latino student body at a time when El Paso has been at the center of Trump’s clampdown on the border “adds salt to the wound.”
Former UTEP student Eden Klein told the regents that Wilson is unqualified for the position and would be harmful to the university community.
“Black and brown and LGBTQ students and employees will never feel safe on a campus knowing they are being presided over by someone who has consistently voted against them,” Klein said.
Karen Adler, a spokeswoman for the University of Texas system, said that Wilson met with students, faculty and staff on campus last week to discuss community concerns. Adler said the meetings were not open to the public to allow for candid conversation.
Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife said the board reviewed Wilson’s qualifications and past performance throughout her career.
“Colleagues who worked with Dr. Wilson during her tenure as a university president, member of Congress and the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, regardless of political party, commended her for her impressive leadership, inclusivity, laser-sharp strategy, focus and compassion and treatment of all with whom she worked,” Eltife said.
Brian Hernandez, a senior engineering student selling raffle tickets at a booth for a Latino-focused fraternity, said the administration did not adequately involve students in the selection process and “when students started protesting, it was already late in the game.”
Wilson served as the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology from 2013 to 2017. When she takes over at the University of Texas at El Paso, she will replace Diana Natalicio, who has served as its president for three decades.