Pushing Back on Presidential Pick

Faculty members and students at the University of Texas at El Paso are raising concerns about the sole finalist chosen to be their next president, saying both the candidate and the process deserve more scrutiny.

At an institution where 80 percent of students are Latinx and another 4 percent are Mexican nationals, the University of Texas System Board of Regents' choice of Heather Wilson -- a white Republican former congresswoman and Trump-appointed U.S. Air Force secretary -- is generating resistance.

“They just didn’t give a damn about the interests and the values of the student body at the university -- and the population at large here in El Paso,” said Oscar Martinez, a retired history professor.

The opening for a new president comes as UTEP’s longtime leader, Diana Natalicio, 79, prepares to step down later this year, after 31 years on the job.

Wilson’s nomination as UTEP’s next president could be approved as early as March 29. In the meantime, her first appearance on campus last week generated student protests, and a Change.org petition that asks the regents to remove Wilson as finalist has garnered more than 9,000 signatures.

Faculty say they weren’t consulted on the decision and question what they call a secretive selection process. UTEP’s Faculty Senate has yet to formally interview Wilson or any of the other three purported semifinalists, and faculty members said they are in the dark not just about who made it that far, but about how the committee chose Wilson, a former defense and security consultant who represented central New Mexico for a decade in Congress. Wilson admits she didn’t set foot on the El Paso campus until earlier this month.

“This person came the weekend of [her selection] and they’re like, ‘Meet your new president.’ And you’re supposed to be happy with that?” said Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri, who directs UTEP's Women's and Gender Studies program. “I just don’t understand how this makes any logical sense.”

Núñez-Mchiri, who is also vice president of UTEP’s Faculty Senate, said the group was never consulted during the search -- nor was it told who the semifinalists were. Faculty members on the UT search committee, she said, were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting them from talking about the process. “I’m very concerned,” she said. “We want to know about the diversity of the pool. Were they actively recruiting Latina or Latino presidents? We don’t know that because everything is held in secrecy.”

A few faculty members met Wilson for the first time in a brief get-together last week, Núñez-Mchiri said. As a result, she said, they’re left with an odd sense that their next leader is both a well-known public figure and an unknown quantity. “Anyone who knows how to google can google her voting record,” she said. “We can google what has been written, and that’s what precedes her, because we have no other way of knowing who this person is. So if googling our president is the only way of knowing who she is, how’s that for transparency?”

Presidential searches are often secretive -- in 2017, UT’s regents went through a nearly identical process, announcing that after a lengthy search they had chosen a sole finalist to be the next president of the University of Texas at San Antonio. Their choice was Taylor Eighmy, 60, then vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

To continue reading: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/22/utep-faculty-and-students-protest-presidential-finalist-who-serves-trump-air-force