SECAF Heather Wilson Resigns, Returning to Academia

SECAF Heather Wilson Resigns, Returning to Academia

In a surprise move, Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Heather Wilson announced today that she will resign effective May 31, 2019 to become President of the University of Texas at El Paso.  Her name had surfaced repeatedly as a possible successor to Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense, but that clearly is not in the cards.  President Trump tweeted his appreciation for her service, but neither offered explanations for the sudden departure.

Dr. Heather Wilson being sworn in as Secretary of the Air Force, May 16, 2017.

Wilson is a former Congresswoman from New Mexico who was President of the South Dakota School of Mines before joining the Trump Administration.  An opponent of congressional attempts in 2017 to create a Space Corps within the Air Force to better manage military space activities, her stance changed after Trump demanded that a Space Force be created as an independent military service last June, taking it completely out of the Air Force’s hands.

In the intervening months, she successfully swung the needle back to where it now will remain within the Air Force — the Space Corps concept — while keeping Trump’s “Space Force” name.  It is viewed as major victory for her, making her departure all that more surprising.

The news broke via Reuters after the University of Texas issued a press release this morning stating that Wilson is the “sole finalist” in its search for a new President for its El Paso campus (UTEP).  UT System Chancellor James Milliken said Wilson has the “experience, talent and leadership to build on UTEP’s exceptional momentum.”  The UT system’s Board of Regents unanimously voted to choose her as the sole finalist today, but she cannot be appointed until after a state-required 21-day waiting period.  If all goes according to plan, Wilson will assume the post as UTEP President effective September 1, 2019, succeeding Diana Natalcio who is retiring after 30 years as UTEP’s President.

In a statement, Wilson said it has been a privilege to serve as SecAF.

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. 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of the force; we have cut years out of acquisition schedules and gotten better prices through competition; we have repealed hundreds of superfluous regulations; and we have strengthened our ability to deter and dominate in space. — Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who served with her in the House, tweeted their appreciation for her service.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and influential members of Congress were among those adding their kudos for her leadership.

Goldfein tweeted that “[w]e hit the lottery” with Wilson and became a better Air Force under her leadership.  The Air Force and airmen “will continue rowing hard, becoming even faster, smarter.  As she takes her talent to my home state of Texas, I wish her the very best.”

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) said he will “miss the leadership and strategic perspective she brought to driving innovation and modernizing the Air Force. … I am happy for her.  The University of Texas El Paso is getting the best of the best.”

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee and another member who served with her when she was a Congresswoman, issued a statement praising Wilson and expressing hope that someday she will, in fact, be the first female Secretary of Defense.

“Heather Wilson is a dear friend and former colleague of mine. The importance of her incredible work in the Air Force cannot be overstated. It is not surprising to me that Heather would be sought out by other organizations looking for her strong leadership. I wish Heather all the best in her future endeavors. She will be deeply missed. Hopefully, someday we can see Heather Wilson as the first female Secretary of Defense.”  Rep. Mike Turner

Wilson graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the Air Force Academy in 1982, then earned Masters and doctoral degrees (D.Phil) in international relations as a Rhodes Scholar at England’s Oxford University.   After service in Europe as an Air Force Officer (Captain), she joined President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff in 1989.  In 1991, she left government service and founded Keystone International in Albuquerque, NM.  In 1995, she was appointed by the Governor of New Mexico to be Cabinet Secretary for Children, Youth and Families.

She was elected to Congress in 1998 and served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2008, she decided to run for Senate to succeed Sen. Pete Dominici, but lost in the primary.  She ran again for the Senate in 2012 to succeed Sen. Jeff Bingaman, but lost in the general election.  From 2013-2017 she was President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, SD.

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