Air Force Secretary Resigning to Take University Position

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks to a group of Chiefs and their spouses during the Command Chief Master Sergeant training course at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Jan. 15, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Wayne Clark)
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks to a group of Chiefs and their spouses during the Command Chief Master Sergeant training course at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Jan. 15, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Wayne Clark)

The Air Force's top civilian is resigning to pursue a career in academia.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will step down in May to become the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso, Reuters first reported Friday.

The Air Force said Wilson will resign as secretary effective May 31 to "allow sufficient time for a smooth transition."

"It has been a privilege to serve alongside our airmen over the past two years, and I am proud of the progress that we have made restoring our nation's defense," Wilson said in a statement sent to media.

"We have improved the readiness of the force; we have cut years out of acquisition schedules and gotten better prices through competition; we have repealed hundreds of superfluous regulations; and we have strengthened our ability to deter and dominate in space," she added.

Wilson's name had been floated for defense secretary since Jim Mattis resigned from that position in December. A congressional official confirmed to Military.com last month that Wilson had been rumored as a favored contender.

"Today I informed the President I will resign as Secretary of the Air Force to be President of the University of Texas at El Paso," Wilson posted on Twitter. "It has been a privilege to serve with our #Airmen--I am proud of the progress we have made to restore the readiness & lethality of #USAF."

In October, Foreign Policy reported that President Donald Trump had considered removing Wilson after her reluctance to get on board with the administration's "Space Force" proposal.

The Pentagon pushed back on the report that the president was assessing whether to fire Wilson, who was confirmed as the 24th Air Force secretary in May 2017.

"This is nonsense," then-Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement at the time.

U.S. officials told Reuters that Wilson is not resigning "under pressure" from the administration.

On Friday, KTSM El Paso News reported Wilson had recently been "unanimously approved" by the University of Texas board of regents to become the school's next president. There is a 21-day waiting period before she can officially assume the position, the report said.

Before becoming secretary, Wilson served as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, a public institution for science and engineering in Rapid City.

Wilson has often said she enjoys being out West, especially in New Mexico, where she represented New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, serving as a Republican in Congress from 1998 to 2009.

She is the third woman to serve as Air Force secretary, following Deborah Lee James, who held the post under President Barack Obama, and Sheila E. Widnall, who served in President Bill Clinton's administration.

Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982, part of the third class to include women.

Pentagon officials, such as her four-star counterpart, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, have often praised Wilson's leadership as she engaged with airmen across the country and at bases overseas.

"We hit the lottery with @SecAFOfficial – under her leadership, we became a better #USAF & our Airmen will continue rowing hard, becoming even faster, smarter. As she takes her talent & leadership to my home state of Texas, I wish her the very best," Goldfein tweeted after Wilson's announcement.

Wilson has voiced the need for more inclusivity in the ranks, saying she hopes that Air Force leadership -- from commanders to young enlisted members -- can become role models for a more diverse population.

"For young women, for minorities, for first-generation Americans, it's hard to be what you can't see," Wilson told audiences at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., last year. She was speaking on the center's panel, "Citizen Soldiers or Warrior Caste: Who Will Serve in America's Future Military?"

"And by being role models and making sure our role models are out there where younger women and minorities and others who haven't traditionally been strongly represented in the military can see what the possibility is for them ... that there's an opportunity there, we will inspire more to come to serve," she said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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