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Heather Wilson

Wilson

WASHINGTON | Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, once seen as a candidate to succeed Jim Mattis as defense secretary, said Friday she is resigning to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

Wilson said the new appointment will allow her to return to her academic roots. Wilson, 58, was president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City from 2013 to 2017. The school has championed Wilson for her role in steering academic and facilities development. 

At UTEP, she will replace 79-year-old Diana Natalicio who served as the university's president for three decades. UTEP has an enrollment of around 25,000 students and about 80 percent are Latino.

A former U.S. House Republican member from New Mexico and graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Wilson has headed the Air Force since May 2017, making her President Donald Trump's first Senate-confirmed service secretary.

She had been an early skeptic of Trump's interest in creating a Space Force as an independent military department, but she publicly embraced the administration's proposal to Congress last month that would establish a Space Force as a separate service within the Department of the Air Force.

Trump praised Wilson on Twitter Friday. "A strong thank you to Heather for her service," he wrote.

Wilson also had been mentioned as a potential successor to Mattis. After Mattis announced his resignation in late December, Trump named the former deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, as acting defense secretary. But Trump has not yet nominated anyone for confirmation by the Senate.

In her resignation letter to Trump, Wilson said the University of Texas Board of Regents announced on Friday that she is the sole finalist to become the university's next president, effective Sept. 1. "Under Texas law, my name will be public for three weeks before the regents take a final vote on my appointment," she wrote.

"Upon a favorable vote by the regents, I will resign my position as secretary of the Air Force effective May 31, 2019," she wrote. "This should allow sufficient time for a smooth transition and ensure advocacy during upcoming congressional hearings."

She graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982 and later earned masters and doctoral degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England. Wilson is the first graduate of the academy to hold to hold the service's top civilian post. She served in the House from 1998 to 2009. From 1989 to 1991, she served on the National Security Council staff as director for defense policy and arms control for President George H.W. Bush.

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Wilson said she appreciated the opportunity to serve as the Air Force's top civilian official.

"It has been a privilege to serve alongside our airmen over the past two years, and I am proud of the progress that we have made restoring our nation's defense," Wilson said in a statement distributed by the Air Force. "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."

Rep. Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican, praised Wilson's work as Air Force secretary.

"It is not surprising to me that Heather would be sought out by other organizations looking for her strong leadership," he said. "I wish Heather all the best in her future endeavors. She will be deeply missed. Hopefully, someday we can see Heather Wilson as the first female secretary of defense."

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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