Air Force secretary resigns to become university president

Air Force secretary resigns to become university president
© Stefani Reynolds

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will step down at end of May to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso, the Air Force confirmed Friday.

“Upon a favorable vote by the University of Texas Board of Regents, the Secretary of the Air Force, Heather A. Wilson, will resign as Secretary of the Air Force effective May 31, 2019. This will allow sufficient time for a smooth transition,” the Air Force said in a statement.

In her own statement, Wilson said it has been a “privilege” to serve as secretary.

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“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. “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of the force; we have cut years out of acquisition schedules and gotten better prices through competition; we have repealed hundreds of superfluous regulations; and we have strengthened our ability to deter and dominate in space.”

The statements came after the University of Texas (UT) System announced that its Board of Regents unanimously named Wilson the sole finalist to be president of UT-El Paso.

There is still a 21-day waiting period, required by Texas law, before the Board of Regents can officially appoint Wilson.

Trump praised Wilson in a pair of tweets, saying she "has done an absolutely fantastic job" as Air Force secretary and thanking her for her service.

Wilson’s departure adds to an already high amount of turnover at the Pentagon at a time when the Trump administration’s defense policies are coming increasingly under fire from Capitol Hill.

The Pentagon has been led by an acting secretary since the beginning of January — making Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE the Defense Department’s longest acting secretary in its history.

There are also a slew of high-ranking military officers who are retiring in the coming months as part of regular rotations.

Wilson, a former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico, has served as Air Force secretary since May 2017. Prior to that, she was working as the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Wilson is also an Air Force veteran, having graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982 and retiring from active duty in 1989.

Her relationship with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE was said to have soured amid the debate over his desire to establish a "Space Force."

Wilson opposed Trump's initial plan to have Space Force be an entirely separate branch of the military. A report surfaced in October that he was considering firing her over the issue.

But Wilson ultimately won the argument, securing Space Force as a branch of the military that would remain under the purview of the Department of the Air Force. 

Wilson alluded to the military's presence in outer space in her resignation letter to Trump, referencing the military's ability to "dominate in space" in a paragraph identical to her statement to the press about her resignation.

Wilson also appeared to use part of her resignation letter to defend her return to academia, touting UT-El Paso as among the "top 5 percent of research universities in the country."

"It is a university that changes lives with a deep commitment to both access and excellence," she wrote. "American higher education needs strong leaders to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

Since James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Amazon to challenge Pentagon's 'war cloud' decision in federal court Former Mattis staffer: Trump 'shooting himself in the foot' on foreign policy MORE’s resignation as Defense secretary in December, several lawmakers had floated her name as a possible contender to be the next Defense secretary. As a former congresswoman, she was well-liked on the Hill and had an ally in Vice President Pence, with whom she served in the House.

"The importance of her incredible work in the Air Force cannot be overstated," Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Friday. "It is not surprising to me that Heather would be sought out by other organizations looking for her strong leadership. 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.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein also sang Wilson's praises Friday, tweeting that "we hit the lottery" with her.

The Navy also announced Friday that its assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, Phyllis Bayer, has also submitted her resignation to "pursue other opportunities."

--Updated at 1:58 p.m.