President Wilson: Leading a binational, bicultural university

Glenda Avalos

Valeria Olivares, Editor-in-chief

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As UTEP President Heather Wilson’s first semester at the university starts wrapping up, The Prospector sat down to talk about her experience so far, plans for the university and more.  

Wilson describes herself as a pragmatic, values-driven, strategic leader who likes to identify the bigger issues and tasks that need to be dealt with, while holding herself and others accountable for the achieved results.   

Wilson was the first female military veteran elected to a full term in Congress, was in one of the first classes at the U.S. Air Force Academy that allowed women, is the first woman to lead basic training and the first woman vice wing commander at the Academy and she believes that just about anybody can be a role model for others.  

“Everybody has an obligation to be the best whoever they are and to open opportunities for the next generation,” Wilson said. “It’s not limited to me … We all have that obligation.”  

Different people have served as Wilson’s role models and inspirations throughout her life. Colin Powell’s leadership, Margaret Mead’s story, explored in her autobiography titled “Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years,” and Q’s quirky and unconventional character in the James Bond films have all shaped her in different ways.   

As the former president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, a science and engineering university, member of the U.S. House of Representatives and, most recently, secretary of the U.S. Air Force, Wilson was excited to return to higher education.  

“I knew that I was going to love being back on campus with students,” Wilson said. “There’s so much that happens between the age of 18 and 25-ish, it’s just a really exciting time.”  

Among her long-term plans for UTEP, Wilson seeks to strengthen student success, expand the research done at the university and increase the university’s engagement and impact on the community.  

“UTEP is a 21st century university; It has grown consistently over the last 21 years and it’s now a class one research university,” Wilson said. “It’s one of the best universities in the country, we’re as good as we’ve ever been and now, together, we’ve got to figure out how to get even better.”  

Building a stronger philanthropic culture at the university is one of Wilson’s long-term goals. A shorter-term goal is updating UTEP’s strategic plan, something she said has not been done since 2010.  

Wilson plans to bring in an outside consultant to assess what is happening within the higher education environment and analyze UTEP’s strengths in order to leverage the institution.  

“We’re a binational, bicultural university. Large percentage are fluently bilingual, faculty and staff,” Wilson said. “What are the things that we can do to advance knowledge and discovery of public value that nobody else can do, because of who we are and where we are?”  

Wilson also plans to start an enrollment management plan that will look into the statistics of the 52 high schools in the region from which UTEP recruits.  

“The demographics in those schools tell us that, over the next 10 years, we’ll see a declining number of graduates from those schools,” Wilson said. “What does that mean for us and the programs that we offer? What are the programs we don’t offer that we should offer?”   

The work done with UTEP Edge, the university’s program that develops students’ professional skills and seeks to give them a competitive advantage as they graduate, impressed Wilson as she learned about it when transitioning into her current position.  

“It’s research based, it’s data-driven … UTEP Edge is in pretty good shape,” Wilson said. “Sometimes the best thing a leader does is find what’s working and stay out of the way.”  

In response to the protests that popped up on campus calling out her past Congressional voting record and the petition that reached more than 10,000 signatures and asked the Texas Board of Regents, the governing body for The University of Texas System, to reconsider her election, Wilson said her past jobs prepared her for it.  

“As a member of Congress, I don’t think there’s a day that goes by in Washington when there aren’t several groups protesting about different things,” Wilson said. “It’s one of the ways people communicate things that are important to them and you’ve got to listen and be cognizant of how people feel and what they worry about.”  

Wilson explained that a university’s transition of a presidency is an “anxious time” for its students, faculty and staff, adding that she understands a leader must “reach out and listen.”  

In order to prepare for her position, Wilson and her husband went to a Spanish immersion course in Oaxaca, Mexico.  

“It’s a fluently bilingual community and I think it’s important to at least be able to understand more,” Wilson said. “It’s a matter of respect, as well.”  

She tries to fit in a study session each morning by using Duolingo, a language learning app that offers more than 30 different languages.  

Wilson said that she has enjoyed El Paso, the activities the city offers and the people’s diversity, adding that she has had interesting conversations about the city’s biculturalism.  

“I’ve found (El Paso and UTEP) to be a very welcoming community across the board,” Wilson said. “People have been friendly and welcoming … I have not had a bad meal since I arrived.” 

Valeria Olivares may be reached at [email protected] 

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