Sometimes Heather Wilson needs a view from above to get a clearer understanding of what she can see on a map. Fortunately for her, Wilson’s a pilot, and getting a view from above is like taking a Sunday cruise.
Wilson, UTEP’s first new president in more than three decades, officially started on Aug. 15. The former U.S. Air Force Secretary took over for longtime UTEP President Diana Natalicio, who retired.
Since beginning her tenure as the 11th president of UTEP, she’s spent countless hours getting familiar with her new home and figuring out the best ways to start laying down her plans and aspirations for UTEP.
“There are campuses around the country that are in crisis for one reason or another, and this is not one of them,” Wilson said. “But as a senior leader, I try to look at if we have the right people in leadership positions, whether everyone knows what the big things we need to do are.”
Wilson graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and received her master’s degree and doctorate from Oxford University in England.
Wilson also spent 10 years, from 1998 to 2009, in Congress, representing New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District and was secretary of the Air Force from 2017 to May 2019.
She moved to El Paso earlier this year with her husband, Jay Hone, and dog, Penny. She also has three grown children.
Wilson recently spent an hour talking with El Paso Inc. in her campus office about her hopes for UTEP, the university’s future and flying on Sundays.
Q: Tell me about your flying experiences since you got to El Paso.
I’ve managed to go flying a couple of times recently. My airplane is out at Santa Teresa. My relaxation and catharsis is to go out on Sundays. I had to replace a landing light bulb. There’s a tinkering thing, that I can spend four hours in a hangar covered in grime, and the dog comes with me. People stop by and say hi. You come home covered in dirt, and there’s something satisfying about that.
I have a Cessna 152, which doesn’t really qualify as an airplane because it doesn’t go as fast as my husband’s car.
A couple weekends ago I flew out to Deming because I wanted to see some neat geological features between Santa Teresa and Deming. They look like holes. I wanted to see them from not much higher than they are.
Q: Do you have a vision or goal for what you want to accomplish in your first year at UTEP?
There are some things we need to get done – the strategic plan, an enrollment plan. We changed the budgeting model. It tended to be year-to-year, incremental, with very little input from the colleges. We’re trying to set up a budgeting process where the deans and vice presidents take a look at their own budgets, propose changes.
I think we’ll make better decisions if we involve more people and have transparency in the budgeting process. We just sent a memo on that change process this week.
We’re trying to look at how we’re engaged and connected to the community. It’s not a big change as much as it is constantly being sensitive to what the changes are around you, how we’re going to be connected to the community. We’re doing a review of that in the first year.
Q: Talk to us about UTEP’s recently announced $70 million manufacturing and aerospace center.
The first day I was on the job, there was a board of regents meeting where they announced that the revenue for oil and gas was coming in at a higher rate than anticipated. So they solicited proposals from the campuses to meet high priority needs. They set out some criteria for that. It had to be consistent with the mission and needs of the school but also have a positive economic impact on the region.
When I came back and started engaging the faculty on day two of the job, we were trying to pull teams of people together to say OK, what are the needs?
The one that was funded was based on our tremendous growth and strength in advanced manufacturing. We do a lot of it now. It’s grown significantly, and it’s really important work.
We have about 55 additive manufacturing machines that we do research on and small-lot production and testing, crammed into a very small space. We have a lot of undergraduate and graduate students engaged. So it’ll allow us to have more space to grow the program and continue to have an impact on manufacturing.
That facility will be on campus, and some of the money will be used for our test facility out on the Eastside. We’re not exactly sure where we’ll put it. We use some facilities out at the Fabens airport, and then we have some land at the Tornillo exit. We’re still sorting that out.
Q: Does UTEP do any manufacturing work for or have partnerships with other entities?
Yes we do. We have quite a bit of research sponsored by the Army and by NASA. Some of the work we’re doing with NASA has to do with the design of nozzles for rocket engines. A rocket engine is just burning fuel, but the design of the nozzle at the end really can change a lot about the power of the engine and all kinds of other things. You can 3D print the nozzle and then test it, which is one of the things we do out in Fabens.
Q: The UT System will implement a 2.6% across-the-board tuition increase. How have you managed that?
UTEP has one of the lowest tuitions in the UT System and in the country for class-one research universities. There’s a strong commitment here to keep college affordable. The 2.6% decision was based on higher education inflation. The regents recognize that there are costs that go up, not only for the cost of people but also the cost of electricity and other things.
Q: Do you feel like you have to balance low tuition and being a community-serving institution with research?
The best universities in the country do both, and this is one of the best universities in the country. The challenge is that some universities have chosen to limit access to their institutions and segment their market by charging more or by telling students they’re not allowed to come in. That’s a mistake for public higher education.
America is growing. More young people in the 21st century are going to need higher education. What that means from my perspective is that those limited, restricted universities are going to be left behind, because they’re not going to be meeting the needs of America.
The great institutions are going to be those that are open to everyone, who demand excellence and drive forward knowledge.
Q: Is there a connection between UTEP and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso?
Dr. Richard Lange (TTUHSC president) and I have met several times, and they have patients and clinicians, but we have a lot of researchers. We think there are opportunities for collaboration on research, and we’re trying to minimize the barriers for collaboration between the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and UTEP faculty and researchers. We’re determined to move that forward.
Q: What are UTEP’s enrollment trends?
It’s really leveled off in the last two years, and this is one of the things we’ll be looking at.
We’ve had 21 straight years of enrollment growth. Compare that to the schools that are close to us. The University of New Mexico is now smaller than UTEP. We’re almost twice the size of New Mexico State. People don’t often realize that.
There’s been a kind of leveling off, particularly among undergraduates. That’s driven by the demographics of the region. There are 52 high schools in this region where most of our students come from. You could look at what’s happening in every grade of those high schools and see that leveling off.
We’re focused on getting more students from high school to go to El Paso Community College or into UTEP. But we’re already at one of the highest rates in Texas. We need to keep getting better at that. But beyond that, where else should we go, or should we? We never recruit students from Houston, Dallas or San Antonio, and I feel sorry for those students who didn’t have an opportunity to consider UTEP.
Q: What role does UTEP play in attracting businesses to come to the borderland?
Lockheed Martin is desperate for great engineers. They like what we do here in training and educating engineers. Unemployment among engineers is close to zero. They agreed to put a location here in El Paso, near to what they really want: the talent.
So how can a university itself become an engine of economic growth in our community? Both by attracting companies here and being part of the team.
Companies care about the availability of talent. They care about infrastructure, taxes and all those things. The university plays a role in explaining how we meet the needs of business.
Q: Would UTEP ever offer continuing education options outside of a traditional degree?
We had a very good meeting on that. It wouldn’t be only for the students we have now. One of the credit union leaders I met with said, “We need data analysts and there’s just not enough.” We can place everyone that has a degree in data analysis, but can we offer a professional certificate with five courses for the credit unions or real estate agents or bankers or anyone who needs to understand and be able to manipulate these huge datasets?
In the past, we’ve thought about education as you come out of high school, you go to college for four years, and then you go out into the workforce and realize, “man, I don’t have all the skills I need.” So you go back for a master’s or something, and it’s almost linear.
In the future, maybe there’s more looping. Maybe you did get that master’s, but then you realize you need some more tools in your box. As we live longer and people change professions two or three times in their lives, that upscaling continuously is going to be important.
Q: Are you going to name new people to positions around the university?
There are vice presidents here, and the provost is the vice president for academic affairs. We have nine colleges under them and at least 100 departments. I don’t think I’ve even met all the department heads yet. Like any large institution, there’s a process in place to recruit talent. We have a national search going on right now for the permanent provost.
For colleges, as far as hiring goes, if we’re hiring a dean, I’ll probably be involved in the final stages of the interviews. Below that I probably would not be, because I don’t really add that much value.
Q: What are you liking about El Paso?
It’s a very friendly community. It’s welcoming and family-oriented. The food is fantastic. I have not had a bad meal since I got here. Even at lunchtime today I was down talking to the Rotary Club and there was green chile in the mac and cheese. It just doesn’t get better than this.
In the neighborhood, everyone knows each other by their dogs. The neighborhood has been really friendly. My husband wanted to have Halloween at the Hoover House, and they warned us — 120 pounds of candy in two hours. We had more than 1,000 kids in two hours.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your time off?
My plentiful time off? I enjoy going to the athletic events here, and the student events. Anyone who hasn’t come watched this basketball team needs to come. The women’s volleyball team, there’s joy there. They’re having fun, and the people in the stands can feel that, too.
Coach Terry has recruited good athletes who are also good young men. He’s showing them how to be both. He’s coaching them in life, not just in basketball. They want to win but they want to do it the right way.