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The Texas city at the center of a controversy over President Donald Trump's calls for a border wall is on the verge of seeing an administration official become the head of its acclaimed university.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson is the sole finalist for president of the University of Texas at El Paso, situated a few feet from the U.S.-Mexico border.
That prospect has set off protests and petition drives against Wilson, a former congresswoman from New Mexico with a conservative voting record who also served as a university president in South Dakota.
Wilson's selection was announced last Friday as the University of Texas System board of regents' choice to succeed 30-year UTEP President Diana Natalicio. The regents still must vote on her selection, which won't occur before the end of the month. Wilson will remain Air Force secretary until May.
But since she was announced as the sole finalist, Wilson has faced a rough roll out.
Students and community activists protested Wilson’s first visit to UTEP, shouting, “We Deserve Better” while Wilson conducted a news conference on campus Tuesday.
“UTEP deserves and demands a better leader than Heather Wilson,” Eder Perez, 22, president of UTEP’s Queer Student Alliance, which has been active in protesting Wilson, told NBC News.
Detractors are calling into question Wilson’s record in Congress and on LGBTQ rights, including her opposition to same-sex marriage. Last year, Wilson backed the reversal of a decision that found an Air Force colonel guilty of discriminating against a retiring airman by refusing to sign his same-sex spouse's appreciation note.
Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, a graduate of UTEP, started a petition calling on UT’s board to rescind their choice of Wilson. As of Wednesday, the petition had more than 6,500 signatures.
"El Paso is such a welcoming community and UTEP is a welcoming community, and for them to throw a woman with such an anti-LGBT record is concerning,” said Calvillo-Rivera, who has helped organize protests.
Asked about the issue, Wilson said, “My general approach with respect to LGBT issues is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
Wilson spoke to some of the criticisms in a news conference at the university Tuesday. She said she would try to meet with students and staff, although it was unclear whether that would include the groups protesting her selection.
"This is the right university at the right time and I'm going to be looking forward to it," she said, according to video of the news conference posted by UTEP’s daily newspaper The Prospector.
More Trump effect for El Paso?
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, who was on the search committee, praised Wilson, pointing out her military background as an asset to a city that is home to Fort Bliss; she also cited her “tremendous academic background.”
Over 83 percent of UTEP's student body is Latino, and the majority is of Mexican-American descent. The prospect of a Trump appointee heading the university that prides itself on its interchanges with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, comes as the city has felt pummeled by the administration’s harsh immigration policies and Trump’s rhetoric.
Several of UTEP's students cross the border from Mexico, the country which Trump slammed at the beginning of his 2016 campaign.
El Paso, Texas also has been at the center of a number of Trump administration tactics on immigration. It was the test site for the administration’s prosecutions of people accused of crossing the border illegally and for separating migrant children from their parents, among other things.
Her selection has put a spotlight on the regent's process for selecting Wilson. Critics want to know whether the regents, all appointees of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott or former Gov. Rick Perry, now the Energy secretary in the Trump administration, looked hard enough for a Latino candidate. Texas’ university system regents are largely white and male, the Texas Tribune has reported.
Only 3.9 percent of the nation's university presidents were Latino in 2016, a drop from about 4 percent in previous years, according to the American College President Study 2017.
"I personally am very concerned that a Latino or Latina did not emerge as a finalist," said Dennis Bixler-Marquez, director of UTEP's Chicano Studies Program and a mulitcultural education professor.
The regents declined to specifically address about a dozen questions on Wilson's selection emailed by NBC News.
In a statement, UT System spokeswoman Karen Adler said the regents conducted in-depth and thorough reviews of a small slate of candidates provided by a presidential search advisory committee and unanimously chose Wilson as the sole finalist.
A tough act to follow
If regents vote to approve their selection, Wilson would follow Natalicio, who is retiring after serving as the university’s president since 1988.
Natalicio, who is not Hispanic, was recognized for her efforts to elevate the institution's bicultural history and her efforts to adapt the university and its operations to the needs of its mostly Hispanic, low-income students. Natalicio rose through the ranks of UTEP, starting as an assistant professor in 1971.
Under Natalico’s guidance, the university once most known for its Bhutanese architecture and the annual Bowl game held at its campus, attained a ranking as a top-tier research university.
Wilson said she plans to build on "the absolute best" Natalicio established, saying the responsibility of the university is "to educate whoever walks on the campus and chooses to be educated."
Before being named Air Force secretary, Wilson served from 2013 to 2017 as president of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where the population of 2,809 students is about 80 percent white. UTEP, Calvillo-Rivera pointed out, has 23,400 students with a majority-Latino population.
“She was president for four years of a small technical college in South Dakota. We are a huge public university,” said Aurolyn Luykx (pronounced Aura-lynn Likes), an associate professor of anthropology at UTEP.
A UT news release stated that Wilson doubled the South Dakota institution's research awards, increased enrollment and created new master's and doctoral degree programs.
In the news conference, Wilson said she would bring to UTEP a better understanding of federal funding than she had when she was younger and saw opportunities to grow its research, particularly in engineering and science.
She also touted her experience running “complex organizations” like the Air Force and New Mexico’s Children Youth & Families Department under then-New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
A Republican, Wilson represented New Mexico’s 1st congressional district in the U.S. House. After leaving Congress in 2008, Wilson launched her own lobbying firm and obtained a consulting contract with Sandia National Laboratories. The deal was considered questionable by the Energy Department Inspector General at the time, but she was cleared of any law breaking.
Kathleen Staudt, a political scientist who taught at UTEP for 40 years before retiring, said the university has a history of tension between researchers who emphasize military and homeland security research and those who focus on U.S.-Mexico border studies, migration research, trade and other such studies.
She said there is worry that with Wilson’s background there will not be a balance and more grant money will go to military and homeland security studies that might include focuses on stopping migration and using technology to secure the border.
She said there is also wariness that the regents, who have been donors to Republican campaigns, are part of a larger political effort to “turn” the Democrat-voting community to one more willing to back Republicans.
She said the city has been through such “border narratives” in the past when Silvestre Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief, was its congressman and would being political appointees to the campus for conferences on keeping the border safe. The conferences would include exhibits from the military industrial complex, she said with topics on stopping migrants and border surveillance.
That changed when Beto O’Rourke became the city’s congressman, shifting more to discussions about trade and working with Ciudad Juarez, she said.
“With Heather Wilson in place, we might see a shift back to a security model,” Staudt said.