A former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico who has been a consultant for top-tier science laboratories and defense contractors was named the 19th president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology on Thursday.
Heather Wilson will become the first female president in the school's 128-year history when she starts work in June. Her extensive political and public-sector experience was critical to the Board of Regents decision, said Regent Terry Baloun, chair of the search committee.
“At a time when higher education increasingly must make its case for more external funding and sustained research support from the federal and private sectors, our search committee took particular note of Dr. Wilson’s Capitol Hill experience, as well as her connections to decision-makers in Washington and throughout the scientific research community,” Baloun said.
Wilson, 52, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a Rhodes Scholar. She served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1998 to 2009, when she gave up the seat in an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.
She is the owner of an Albuquerque consulting firm. As president of Heather Wilson & Co. LLC, Wilson has worked as a senior adviser to national laboratories such as Sandia, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, the Nevada Test Site and Battelle Memorial Institute.
Wilson spent the first 17 years of her life in New Hampshire, and while there is still a soft hint of those New England roots in her voice, she has lived in New Mexico for the past 20 years.
She joked Thursday that she now will have to learn how to speak South Dakotan, but said she was "honored to be the newest Hardrocker."
Her husband of 22 years, Jay Hone, is an attorney and general counsel for the New Mexico General Services Department. He was unable to attend Thursday's announcement, but their two children, Joshua Hone, 19, and Caitlin Hone, 16, were on hand as their mother thanked one of her three fellow finalists, acting Mines president Duane Hrncir, for "leading this school in a tough time."
Hrncir, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Mines, did not attend the event. He has been at the engineering school's helm since former President Robert Wharton died unexpectedly eight months ago of complications from cancer treatment.
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A few Mines staffers privately expressed disappointment that Hrncir was not appointed, but Hardrocker women's basketball coach Barb Felderman said she was excited by Wilson's appointment and not in the least deterred by her lack of hard-science background and her little academic experience.
"We need somebody to get out and get some money and make some contacts and build some buildings," Felderman said.
Wilson made it clear Thursday that she was up to those fundraising challenges, which are part of a "very ambitious strategic plan" that Wharton was "tragically unable to fulfill," she said.
Her job will be to continue that mission and increase the student body from its current 2,400 students to 3,500 over the next eight years. That means more classrooms, more research facilities and more money, she said.
“I look forward to leading the expansion of Mines that Bob Wharton inspired and, tragically, was unable to finish,” Wilson said. “We will increase research, build needed facilities and expand the student body" to provide the engineers and scientists that the state and the region needs.
One of those students is Henrietta Kasaini, a chemical engineering major from South Africa who was thrilled by the selection of Wilson to lead her school.
"As a female in engineering, definitely, I'm really excited," she said.
Kasaini is involved with organizations that work to increase the number of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, and she, too, hopes Wilson's public sector experience might help get more sponsorships for those initiatives on campus.
The other two finalists for the position were H. Fred Walker of Honeoye Falls, N.Y., dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Stephen G. Wells of Reno, Nev., president, Desert Research Institute, Nevada System of Higher Education.