Protesters Petition University to Reconsider SecAF's Appointment as President

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks with members of the workforce during a town hall at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., April 5, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo/Todd Maki)
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks with members of the workforce during a town hall at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., April 5, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo/Todd Maki)

More than 9,700 people have signed a petition urging the University of Texas at El Paso to reconsider its nomination of Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson as its next president.

The petition, which was started days after Wilson announced she would step down as the 24th Air Force secretary to pursue her latest role in academia, is close to reaching its goal of 10,000 signatures.

"We call on the Texas Board of Regents, the governing body for The University of Texas System, to withdraw Heather Wilson as the finalist for president of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)," according to the petition, posted on Change.org on March 9.

"Wilson has a clear history of being anti-LGBTQ, as reflected in her voting record as a former U.S. congresswoman from New Mexico and more recently in her position as Air Force Secretary, where she reversed a rule to allow for anti-gay discrimination in 2018," reads the petition, co-sponsored by eight LGBTQ and social groups.

The petition was started by Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, president of the Borderland Rainbow Center, an El Paso community center that focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and intersex outreach. The group and sponsoring organizations recently held a series of protests to oppose Wilson's upcoming tenure at the school, according to the El Paso Times.

"Moving Heather Wilson as the sole finalist, and potential next president of UTEP, endangers the university's ability to earnestly act on and serve in the best interests of all students," the petition states.

Wilson visited UTEP on March 11. During a press conference, she stressed educational value and respect for all.

"My general approach to LGBT issues is to treat everyone with dignity and respect. And I think that is what a leader should do with everyone in the university," she said, as reported by the El Paso Times.

"You probably couldn't have chosen as a sole finalist someone who has lived more in public life," Wilson said, referring to accounts from both "credible and not-so-credible sources about who I am and what I stand for on any issue."

In Washington, D.C., lawmakers have expressed gratitude to Wilson, and some have hinted she should reconsider her departure.

During a March 13 Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing on the Air Force budget, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said she's been hoping Wilson reverses her decision.

"You truly have done an amazing job on everything from procurement, to morale, to recruitment, to readiness," Collins said.

"I can't think of anyone better, and I'm very sad that you're leaving. You can still tell them 'no' in El Paso. Maybe you can't, but I just wanted to start off by thanking you and wishing you well," she said.

Other lawmakers chimed in.

"We're going to miss your leadership at the Pentagon," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, credited Wilson as a great addition to the Trump administration.

"What you have added -- what you have added to this administration -- is greatly, greatly appreciated and will be deeply missed," Murkowski said.

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

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

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