Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, one of the first officials to join the Trump administration in the Pentagon, said Friday she has informed President Trump she will resign, as the University of Texas System announced she has been named the sole finalist to become president of its campus in El Paso.
Wilson submitted a resignation letter and released a statement Friday morning in which she said it was a privilege to serve alongside U.S. airmen over the two previous years and that she is “proud of the progress we have made to restore 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of the force; we have cut years out of acquisition schedules and gotten better prices through competition; we have repealed hundreds of superfluous regulations; and we have strengthened our ability to deter and dominate in space,” she said.
News of the resignation, first reported by Reuters, came just after the University of Texas Board of Regents voted unanimously to select her to lead UTEP. The university said in a news release Friday that the regents’ decision followed an executive session last week in which they interviewed candidates and considered recommendations from a presidential search advisory committee.
“Dr. Wilson’s broad experience in the highest levels of university leadership, and state and national government — whether securing federal grant awards, advising our nation’s most important national research laboratories, raising philanthropic dollars or running large, dynamic organizations — will help ensure that UTEP continues its remarkable trajectory as a nationally recognized public research institution,” regents’ chairman Kevin Eltife said in a statement. “Most importantly, she is deeply committed to student success and has dedicated her life to enhancing upward mobility opportunities for individuals.”
Wilson, a former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico, said in her letter of resignation that she expects the board will take a final vote on her candidacy in 21 days, as Texas state law dictates. She plans to remain as Air Force secretary until May 31, which “should allow sufficient time for a smooth transition and ensure effective advocacy during upcoming Congressional hearings,” she wrote.
Wilson’s decision comes after Jim Mattis resigned as defense secretary in December, citing policy disagreements with the president. Mattis had recruited her to become Air Force secretary, she told The Washington Post in 2017. She had served as the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for the previous four years.
Wilson did not cite any disagreements with Trump in her letter of resignation, and wrote that she believes American higher education “needs strong leaders to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
“I very much appreciate the opportunity to have served,” she wrote. “I remain a strong advocate for our nation’s defense and an Airman for life.”
Trump, who praised Mattis when he resigned, only to criticize him days later, recognized Wilson for her service on Friday after her announcement.
“Congratulations to Heather Wilson, who is the sole finalist to become the next President of University of Texas at El Paso effective September 1, 2019,” Trump said on Twitter. “Heather has done an absolutely fantastic job as Secretary of the Air Force, and I know she will be equally great in the very important world of higher education. A strong thank you to Heather for her service.”
The Air Force’s top officer, Gen. David L. Goldfein, also spoke glowingly of Wilson.
“We hit the lottery with @SecAFOfficial — under her leadership, we became a better #USAF & our Airmen will continue rowing hard, becoming even faster, smarter,” he tweeted, referring to her by her Twitter handle. “As she takes her talent & leadership to my home state of Texas, I wish her the very best.”
Some members of Congress had suggested her as a good replacement for Mattis. Trump named Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan as acting Pentagon chief effective Jan. 1 and has spoken favorably about him since, raising speculation that he could be nominated to stay in the job.
Wilson irked the president last year by raising concerns about how much his planned Space Force will cost the Pentagon, U.S. officials have said. More recently, she openly had supported the idea, crediting Trump for drawing attention to security concerns in space and efforts by China and Russia to advance their space-based capabilities.
Wilson had said several times that it was an honor to have people suggest she would make a good defense secretary. But her answer to whether she would stay indefinitely as Air Force secretary was unclear. Asked by The Post in January whether she was committed to keeping her current job, she cited the movie “Dead Poets Society,” in which an English teacher played by Robin Williams urges students to seize the day.
“Tomorrow is really uncertain,” Wilson said. “I don’t mean that in a professional way, I just mean that you never know. All you have is today. What are you going to do today? And that’s all any of us have. I try to guide the Air Force to the future, but I think any of us that [say they] know what will happen tomorrow or next week are kidding ourselves about what it means to be human. We don’t have any certainty in life, and I always live my life that way.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.