During Heather Wilson’s first news conference as President of The University of Texas at El Paso in August 2019, she sat in front of a roomful of reporters with a look of determination and a smile on her face.
“I’m here because this is a great University, and together, we’re going to figure out how to make it even better,” she confidently told the El Paso press corps. “In my opinion, this is America’s 21st century university. We are now what more universities are going to look like in 20 to 30 years.”
It was clear from the beginning that UTEP would be in capable hands.
“It’s been a pretty remarkable year,” President Wilson said recently on the patio of the Hoover House. “What has impressed me the most is the people of El Paso and how friendly they are. Everybody has been very helpful and kind. This city is very family oriented, which I really like.”
The UT System Board of Regents named Wilson UTEP’s 11th president in April 2019. She began her new role Aug. 15, 2019.
“President Wilson is successfully leading UTEP through one of the most challenging times in history,” said James B. Milliken, Chancellor of The University of Texas System. “Over the past 12 months, her leadership experience at the highest levels – along with her grit and grace – has benefited the entire UTEP community.”
President Wilson’s career in public service and higher education has spanned more than 35 years and includes top leadership roles in higher education, the military, government and private industry.
She came to UTEP after serving as Secretary of the U.S. Air Force from 2017 to 2019.
Like many students at UTEP, Wilson is a first-generation college student, graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1982. She was selected as a Rhodes Scholar and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University in England in 1985.
Jessica Martinez, the two-term Student Government Association (SGA) president, said Wilson is a role model to her.
“Dr. Wilson’s perseverance, resiliency, knowledge and passion for higher education is something I strive for,” Martinez said. “We both started our tenures as presidents roughly around the same time, and in just a year I have seen the tremendous work she has done for our University. I have learned that being a female leader, one faces many, many obstacles. Dr. Wilson has taught me to never let anything discourage me from fulfilling my goals. Dr. Wilson is a great mentor, and I have learned so much from working together. I am forever grateful to have the opportunity to work with her yet another year.”
This is Wilson’s second stint as president of a university. She served as president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, an engineering and science research university in Rapid City, South Dakota, from 2013 to 2017.
President Wilson has developed a special connection with UTEP students. During her first days and weeks on the job, she engaged with a number of student organizations in productive discussions to answer their questions and concerns.
“In Dr. Wilson’s first year at UTEP, she has shown to SGA that she genuinely cares about us students,” Martinez said. “She has made it a priority to reach out to SGA throughout the year to find out what we are working on, how she can better help us out, and has joined us for various meetings and events.”
Wilson arrived on campus eight months after UTEP received an R1 designation for being a top tier doctoral university with very high research activity by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
Wilson’s first major announcement came in December 2019 when UTEP reported $108 million in research and development expenditures for fiscal year 2019. It was the first time the University exceeded $100 million in research in its 105-year history.
In February 2020, the University earned the Community Engagement Classification, the Carnegie Foundation’s highest standard of recognition for reciprocal, sustainable and mutually beneficial scholarly partnerships with local, regional and national communities.
The Community Engagement Classification is voluntary and evidence-based, requiring institutional self-assessment followed by a national review to validate the full extent of community engagement demonstrated in the institution’s mission, identity and commitments.
UTEP received many national awards and recognitions, and millions of dollars in research funds were funneling in.
The University was doing what Wilson promised – it was offering an exceptional education at a great value, producing meaningful research, was becoming a national higher education leader and impacting the economic and well-being of the community.
Then, along came March 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, which completely altered the course of what appeared to be a promising year. On March 13, UTEP announced a shift to remote learning operations after Spring Break in an effort to keep the campus community safe.
UTEP was able to use the remainder of the spring semester as a test run for going entirely online.
Seven months of momentum in Wilson’s first year quickly became five months of uncertainty – when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a grinding halt.
But under her leadership, faculty, staff and students moved forward, determined to find a way.
“I am so proud of this team and how the faculty, staff and students adjusted to a completely unprecedented situation,” President Wilson said of UTEP’s response to the pandemic. “People took up work that was way out of their job description because it had to be done. We had to figure it out. Everybody pitched in. It was wonderful to see.”
Chancellor Milliken visited UTEP Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, to learn more about campus preparations for the fall semester, including UTEPs proactive testing program.
“I am quite impressed,” he said. “Dr. Wilson and her team have thought about all of the things that need to be done to make this as safe an environment as it can be. The capacity the institution has to do its own testing for students, faculty and staff so that they can get ahead of any outbreak is outstanding.”
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, UTEP has revamped its fall 2020 course schedule to reduce in-person classes and increase hybrid and online courses.
Before the pandemic, the University would offer 3,800 different sections in the fall semester, with only 12% of those courses being offered in an online format. The fall 2020 semester will look much different. Only 3% of courses will be in-person, traditional classes, with 80% fully online and 18% hybrid. In-person operations will require social distancing and face masks as a precaution.
“For most people who work at UTEP, this is not a job, it’s a passion,” President Wilson said. “They are committed to increasing access to an excellent education, particularly for those who would not have had access if we were not here. This is a university that is desperately needed by the region. The people who work here are deeply committed to the mission.”
Wilson will be the first to acknowledge that this has not been the year she planned.
“Life is always throwing things at you that you don’t plan,” she said. “Very early on in the pandemic, our Vice President of Student Affairs Gary Edens set up the ‘lemons to lemonade’ committee. Our first order of business was, ‘OK, we don’t like this, but what good can come out of it? What are the things that we are going to learn about ourselves?’ There is always going to be something.”
One of the things University officials learned was about method of instruction.
“We are using technology better today than we ever have because we didn’t have a choice,” Wilson said. “We are now going to be able to use the best of that technology to connect with our students in ways that work for them when this is all over.”
Provost John Wiebe, Ph.D., said President Wilson has taken a thoughtful, positive and decisive approach to her leadership at UTEP.
“She has invested a lot of time in really getting to know the institution and its people,” Wiebe said. “She has leveraged her extensive networks and experience to serve UTEP’s mission, and she’s worked tirelessly under the most demanding circumstances, with self-effacing good humor.”
The pandemic also helped solidify the partnership between UTEP and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso as the two universities collaborated in setting up a lab to expand city testing capabilities and developed a low-cost, 3D-printed ventilator for the health care sector.
“Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s partnership with UTEP strengthens our ties to the community, and together, we’re creating vast educational opportunities for students in the Borderland,” said TTUHSC El Paso President Richard Lange, M.D. “In the past year, Dr. Wilson and I have worked to improve research capabilities in the Paso del Norte region, stood together in solidarity through critical moments in El Paso’s history, and remained focused on educating the talented, culturally competent future leaders of our nation. I look forward to all that our partnership can accomplish in the years to come.”
William Serrata, Ph.D., president of El Paso Community College said the decades-long partnership with the community college and UTEP has increased pathways to higher education and raised educational aspirations, degree attainment and academic excellence for the El Paso community and area students.
“In her first year as UTEP President, Dr. Heather Wilson has renewed our institutions’ partnership and commitment to jointly enhance our region,” he said. “EPCC congratulates her on a successful first year at UTEP and looks forward to enhancing our ongoing partnership and collaboration.”
As Wilson completes her first year as President, her thoughts are already focused on Year 2.
And her first order of business?
“I think everybody is looking forward to not wearing masks,” she joked. “We all have something that we are looking forward to. For me, sometime in the next year, maybe sometime in the next six to eight months, we are all going to be at Centennial Plaza and there will be students lined up all around that beautiful plaza and they are going to be goofing around with their friends and they’re going to be throwing away their masks because they will be standing in line to get vaccinated. And later that night, we’re going to invite as many people as can fit into the Sun Bowl and we’re going to have the biggest and best fireworks show this city has ever seen. When this pandemic is over, we are going to celebrate, and we are going to come back even stronger.”
Author: Victor R. Martinez – UTEP Communications