Opinion

UTEP Presidents, Latinos/as, and Colonialism

By: Oscar J. Martinez, PhD., A guest editorial

Editor's Note: Oscar J. Martínez is a retired professor who taught at UTEP and the University of Arizona. He has published numerous books on the history of Mexico, the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez area, and other parts of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He is also a founder and a coordinator of the El Paso Community First Coalition. This article is extracted from Latinx El Paso: Odyssey of a Hispanic/Mexican American Community, a book in progress.

Imagine if African Americans made up over 80 percent of El Paso’s population and over 80 percent of UTEP’s student body—and no person of African American ancestry had ever served as university president since the founding of the institution over a century ago. African Americans would not stand for that. There would be massive uprisings.

El Paso’s Latinos/as (predominantly Mexican Americans) fit these city and student population profiles precisely. Yet no Latino/a has ever been selected as UTEP president. There have been occasional protests from the group, to be sure, but nothing resembling the kind of insurrection that one would expect from a long-suffering people repeatedly spurned and slighted by Texas officialdom. Colonialism, or control by one power over a repressed nation or a community, lives on in El Paso, with UTEP constituting a prime example.

Who Selects UTEP Presidents?

Dominion over UTEP rests with the University of Texas Board of Regents (hereafter Board or Regents), a body historically composed of mostly wealthy people with connections to the Texas governor and a history of contributions to his/her political party. Regents serve for six-year terms at the pleasure of governors who, while in office, fill vacancies on the Board. During the period examined in this article, Democrats held the Texas governorship from 1969-1979, 1983-1987, and 1991-1995; and Republicans held the governorship from 1979-1983, 1987-1991, and 1995-present. Per political practice, Democratic governors appoint Regents with ties or sympathies to the Democratic Party and Republican governors appoint Regents with ties or sympathies to the Republican Party. Either way, over time most Regents have reflected a conservative political ideology—as would be expected in a conservative state like Texas.

One of the major duties of the Regents is to name presidents for the various campuses of the University of Texas System. The selection of the four UTEP presidents by the Regents discussed in this article took place in 1971, 1980, 1988, and 2019. I hypothesize that because Democrats and Republicans served as Texas governors between 1971 and 1988, they appointed Regents with ties to both parties, assuring a mix of political perspectives on the Board during those years. But, given that Texas governors since 1995 have all been Republicans, it follows that Board membership in recent years has been exclusively Republican (or nearly so) in orientation. Thus, I submit that the naming of Dr. Heather Wilson as the current UTEP president in 2019 differed from previous selections regarding the extent to which partisan politics entered into the decision.

It is important to underscore that as a body the Regents have not represented El Paso, a predominantly Latino/a city that is liberal its ideology. In the last half-century, the Regents have appointed individuals to the UTEP presidency without regard for the sentiments of the Mexican American community.

The biggest affront is the way these presidents have been selected. The Regents have been empowered to appoint whoever they wish to run the universities that make up the University of Texas system. They are not obligated to consult anyone in arriving at these decisions. However, they customarily appoint search committees whose job is to identify and recommend candidates. Such committees give the impression of institutional and citizen participation in the selection process, but they mostly serve to validate the undemocratic decision-making procedures employed by the Regents.

The Regents have had numerous opportunities to name a Latino/a as president of UTEP and have not done so. This is outrageous. UTEP is a Hispanic-serving institution whose Latino/a students became the majority of the student body decades ago. Latino/a El Pasoans have long wanted the top leader at the institution to be one of them, to look like them, speak like them, and reflect their life experience.

Has racism been a factor in the exclusion of Latino/a educators as UTEP presidents? Politics? Favoritism? Cronyism? Parochialism? While definitive answers to these questions are elusive, it is likely that these maladies have played some role in the selection of UTEP presidents in the last half-century. The search process itself, as well as the appointment of favored non-Latino/a white candidates, have lacked transparency and fairness, and have created circumstances that have worked against Latino/a applicants. Following are narratives of how the four most recent UTEP presidents came to be appointed by the Regents.

Dr. Arleigh Templeton, 1971-1980

On December 22, 1971, the Regents named Arleigh B. Templeton as UTEP president in an emergency session. This action, taken without any consultation of UTEP’s faculty, staff, and students, came in response to repeated rallies and demonstrations on campus that had occurred during the fall semester over Chicano/a student grievances that had not been addressed by the administration. According to the Regents, these protests created a dangerous situation that might lead to violence, possibly resulting in physical harm to employees and students. [1]

The imperious selection of Templeton by the Regents infuriated faculty, students, and community residents. Members of UTEP’s Institutional Advisory Committee expressed indignation at being ignored in the appointment process, while a motion to have the American Association of University Professors conduct an official inquiry into the Regents’ heavy-handed action received unanimous support from the UTEP Faculty Council. Speakers at a rally blasted the Regents for bypassing established procedures. Student Body President Don Williams characterized their action as “dictatorial,” while former Texas state representative Paul Moreno accused them of being “anti-Chicano, anti-Black, and anti-poor.” Moreno demanded that a Chicano/a be appointed as a Regent. [2]

Lacking power to do anything else regarding the decision of the Regents, dissidents watched with a wary eye as Templeton assumed the UTEP presidency. For his part, Templeton treaded carefully not only because of the tense environment on campus, but also because of discontent in the Chicano/a community with the substandard opportunities for Mexican-origin students at UTEP. A class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Austin in January 1972, a few weeks into Templeton’s presidency, exemplified that discontent. The lawsuit

• alleged the existence of “a policy of selective admissions which operates as a denial of equal education opportunity to minority group Chicano Students.”
• charged the Vice President for Student Affairs with “marked animus” toward members of MECHA [the Chicano/a student organization].
• accused three members of the Faculty Committee on Discipline, which was tasked with hearing charges against student demonstrators, of “anti-Mexican feelings.”
• contended that the rules of the Board of Regents had not been followed in several decisions made at UTEP.
• sought creation of remedial programs beneficial to disadvantaged students.
• requested the end to the “withholding of loan funds” from students without due process and asked for “exemplary damages” amounting to $25,000 for each of two students affected by that policy.
• sought the recruitment of more Chicanos/as to the UTEP faculty, staff, and administration.
• and urged the naming of Chicanos/as to the Board of Regents. [3]

In March 1972, MECHA announced a campaign against the Regents, claiming that they carried on racist, anti-minority, and repressive policies. Mechistas accused the Regents of undermining funding for programs at UTEP that were beneficial to Chicano/a students and engaging in the removal or demotion of UTEP administrators who were highly committed to helping disadvantaged students. [4] As time passed, Mechistas toned down their rhetoric. On September 14, MECHA chairman David Campos politely addressed the Regents at one of their meetings, stating, “We come here to touch your conscience, your moral goodness, and your obligation to do right, and to exert yourself to work in the interest of the students.” Campos brought up “four major areas of concern” at UTEP and asked for a response by November 5. He urged the Regents to support the (1) upgrading the Inter-American Studies Program; (2) conversion of the Chicano/a Studies Program into a department; (3) hiring a Chicano/a to head the Office of Student Affairs or the Office of Business Affairs; and (4) raising the salaries of custodians. [5] Lack of access to relevant documents precludes knowing the Regents’ response, if any, on Campos’ requests.

By meeting with Chicanos/as and other groups and acting on different issues, Templeton gradually overcame the opposition to his appointment. He relied on his extensive experience dealing with people as past president of various institutions of higher learning in Texas, including Alvin Junior College (1954-1964), Sam Houston State University (1964-1970), and U.T. San Antonio (1970-1972). The administrative skills Templeton learned in those positions, as well as the support from the U.T. system and the Regents, allowed him to hold on to the UTEP presidency for nearly a decade. The late historian and my former colleague Wilbert Timmons credited him with “raising faculty salaries, increasing enrollment, appointing qualified Mexican Americans to high-level administrative positions, establishing the institution’s first doctorate, and initiating a building program.” [6]

My own assessment, based on observations made during the years from 1975, when I became a full-time faculty member at UTEP, to 1980, when Templeton retired, is that he mostly maintained the status quo. Yet UTEP made advances during those years. The campus remained quiet; I do not recall any unrest. From a Chicano/a perspective, examples of progress include the institutionalization of the Chicano/a Studies Program, the hiring of more Mexican American faculty, and the appointment of Tomás Rivera as Executive Vice President. These developments, however, did not extinguish the feeling that Templeton served as a colonial administrator at UTEP, sent by the Regents to placate rebellious natives in a remote corner of Texas.

Dr. Haskell Monroe, 1980-1987

By 1980, Latino/a students made up approximately 40 percent of UTEP’s enrollment, but Latinos/as constituted only 8.4 percent of the institution’s faculty and administrators. The demographics of El Paso guaranteed that the number of Latino/a students at UTEP would continue to grow but, without the application of pressure, the number of Latino/a faculty and administrators would likely remain at its low level or even decline. Thus, the push continued for greater representation of Latino/a professional educators on campus.

Templeton’s announcement in 1979 that he would retire as UTEP president the following year was seen by Chicano/a campus activists and community people as an opportunity to have a Latino/a educator fill that vacancy. As the search began for the new president, I joined other colleagues in identifying qualified Latino/a candidates who might be interested in applying for the job.

We persuaded Dr. Ramón Ruiz, a distinguished historian and experienced administrator from the University of California at San Diego, to throw his hat into the ring. I knew Ruiz well from years of interaction with him at history conferences and other professional activities. Ruiz’s family had migrated to California during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, and his ties to Mexico had driven him to dedicate his professional life to writing books about Mexico and the rest of Latin America. We could identify with his background and scholarly record and were impressed with his answers to our questions. Thus, we decided to back his candidacy and were pleased when the search committee named him as a finalist. The open search process then utilized by the UT system allowed Ruiz to visit the campus and meet with faculty, staff, and students. We knew that the odds were stacked against him. From what we heard, the Regents preferred Texans as presidents of state universities and disdained educators from progressive states, especially California. To our disappointment, but not surprise, Ruiz did not get the job.

The Regents instead chose Dr. Haskell Monroe, a historian and administrator at Texas A & M University and someone with connections to influential decision-makers in Texas. Clearly Monroe had the inside track. He was a native Texan and was well known in the state. On his visit to El Paso as a finalist, I arranged meetings for him with Chicano/a groups on campus and in the community so that he could get a sense of what grass roots people expected of UTEP. At one campus meeting, Monroe tried to win over the group by saying that Hispanics had a splendid cultural tradition, unlike African Americans who, according to him, did not even have a body of literature. We were taken aback by the remark, suspecting that Monroe harbored anti-African American feelings. We also sensed a sympathetic but condescending view toward Mexican Americans. After some discussion, we concluded that his anti-African American comments disqualified him for the position and wrote a letter to the search committee asking that he be eliminated as a finalist. We had no illusions that our objection would be honored and, indeed, the Regents selected Monroe as the new president.

Monroe arrived on campus in March 1980. Shortly thereafter, the history department, of which I was a member, was asked to endorse his appointment as a tenured member of that unit. This was a mere formality since Monroe did not need the history department’s tenure approval, but that gesture was seen as a positive step that indicated the department welcomed him as a member of the history faculty. When the tenure issue came up in the department, I told my colleagues that I could not endorse Monroe and shared with them a recording of the anti-African American comments that he had made during his campus visit. Several colleagues joined me in voting no or abstaining from the vote, but the majority voted yes. Subsequently a member of the department and friend of Monroe informed him of what had happened in that meeting. I imagine that Monroe was not pleased that there had been some opposition to his tenure. From that day forward Monroe viewed me with suspicion.

In 1987, when Monroe stepped down from UTEP presidency to become the chancellor of the University of Missouri, he sent me a letter blasting me for being a “negative” force on campus. He never forgot the role I had played in instigating the history department’s mixed tenure vote. I understood his sentiments. As for my feelings toward him personally, I thought he was a decent, likeable, warm-hearted, and honorable person. And I believed he did a good job as president. But he was a product of the South and his world view did not align with mine. Further, his appointment to the UTEP presidency constantly reminded me of the unfair system maintained by the Regents of favoring applicants from Texas, which made it very difficult for Latino/a educators from other parts of the country to occupy that office.

Dr. Diana Natalicio’s 31-Year Reign, 1988-2019

Following Monroe’s departure in the summer 1987, the Regents named UTEP Vice President Diana Natalicio as interim president. In the fall, as the search got under way to select a permanent president, controversy broke out when the campus learned that Natalicio was among the more than 100 applicants for the position.

A group calling itself Concerned Faculty, of which I was a member, publicly opposed Natalicio’s candidacy for the following reasons: (1) Having spent her entire career at UTEP and having held administrative positions at the department, college, and university level, she had made many unpopular decisions (including tenure denials) and had alienated many people; thus she carried considerable negative baggage that, should she become president, would result in institutional divisiveness. (2) In searching for new presidents, the standard policy followed in universities across the country was to automatically disqualify inside candidates in favor of candidates from the outside precisely for the reasons given above, as well as to bring in fresh ideas and perspectives to the position. We felt that Natalicio could fulfill her ambition to become a university president elsewhere, as per the usual practice. (3) Natalicio did not have a distinguished scholarly record. (4) She had weak support among Latino/a faculty, many of whom thought that, as a sitting vice president, she had not given enough support to matters considered important by Latino/a faculty, staff, and students, including recruitment of more Latino/a faculty and promotion of programs beneficial to Latino/a campus constituencies.

The Concerned Faculty engaged in various activities to make the case that Natalicio should withdraw her candidacy, including holding forums, taking informal polls, introducing resolutions in the Faculty Senate, writing letters to the editor, and even picketing. We demanded that the search committee, headed by James Duncan, a UT System official, hold open meetings and allow for open questioning of candidates. I pointed out in an article that appeared in The Prospector (the student newspaper) that, unlike the secretive search process being used to replace Monroe, the previous search in 1980 that resulted in Monroe’s selection had been totally open. Duncan would not budge, arguing that the UTEP search was being conducted the same way as the presidential search undertaken at UT Austin in 1985.

What Duncan did not say was that the case made by the Concerned Faculty regarding the problems created by allowing insider Natalicio to become a presidential candidate mirrored the 1985 case made at UT Austin by faculty and deans, who strenuously objected to the fact that Bill Cunningham, a UT Austin administrator with a weak scholarly record and serving in a position close to the president’s office, not only had the advantage over outside candidates but, should he become president, would not help elevate the university’s reputation as much as a non-UT system administrator with a distinguished record. Ignoring the sentiments of the UT faculty and deans, the Regents proceeded to select Cunningham as the new UT Austin president, prompting the Texas Monthly to write: “The selection of Cunningham illustrates how heavily the University of Texas, for all its talk of greatness, is still burdened by its mediocre past.” [7]

Despite the complaints about the secretive search process and the negative baggage carried by Natalicio, the Regents named her UTEP president in February 1988. Word leaked out that no Latinos/as had made the list of five finalists, which alarmed many of us and left us wondering particularly why one of the applicants, Dr. Tomás Arciniega, a former UTEP professor who was the president of California State University at Bakersfield, had not been placed at or near the top of the applicant pool. His qualifications surpassed those of Natalicio, and he was a genuine Mexican American who would have added much to UTEP’s academic and cultural ambiance. Many Latino/a faculty disliked the fact that Natalicio, whose maiden name was Diana Siedhoff, reflecting her German ancestry, seemed to go along with the assumption that many people made that she was of Latino/a background, which she was not. The surname Natalicio came from her marriage to Luis Natalicio, a native of Brazil who was a UTEP professor.

The day after the Regents appointed Natalicio UTEP president, the Texas Attorney General’s Office stated in an informal opinion that the refusal of the search committee to publicly announce the names of the finalists was illegal. That opinion, however, did not sway the Regents to release information. Regardless, enough had become known for the public to learn that, apart from Arciniega, the pool of applicants had included another university president. Many asked: Why was Natalicio, a controversial, local candidate selected over two sitting university presidents? The answer to that troubling question remained buried in the minds of the members of the search committee, who had been required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and the Regents, who officially made the appointment.

Members of the Concerned Faculty speculated that, apart from feeling compelled to follow the precedent set at UT Austin to pick an insider for the top post at that institution, the powers-that-be most likely felt they needed to do the same at UTEP. The Regents knew Natalicio and likely had developed a liking for her—while at the same time she cozied up to them. So why not pick her? She knew UTEP well, understood the UT system, and she had received two graduate degrees at UT Austin, an achievement that made her especially attractive to UT system bureaucrats and the Texas-enthralled Regents. Further, as a female candidate, Natalicio was considered a pioneer at a time when few women held top university leadership positions. Besides, she spoke Spanish and had a Spanish-Brazilian surname, personal attributes that the decision-makers surely must have considered a big plus in El Paso, which had a Latino/a-majority population. Never mind that Natalicio was not a real Latina, that she did not have an exceptional research record, that she was a controversial administrator at UTEP, and that so many of her colleagues did not support her.

That opposition was especially strong in UTEP’s Philosophy Department, whose faculty published a scathing letter in The Prospector that questioned the “legitimacy and morality of the recent ‘search’ process and its product.” The philosophers characterized the search as “corrupt” and “its prefabricated product” as “corrupted.” [8]

Natalicio brushed off the rejection of the faculty and settled into her new job, knowing that she had the backing of the Regents, the UT system, and the local Anglo business establishment. She used her political skills to keep her bosses in Austin satisfied with her job performance and, in turn, they allowed her to entrench herself deeply in her position. Amazingly, she held on to the job for an unheard-of length of time—31 years! No sitting president in any public university in the United States had ever monopolized her/his position that long; the average length of service for university presidents ranged from five to eight years.

Over the decades, many UTEP faculty continuously grumbled over how Natalicio had taken total ownership of the presidency and exercised tight control over the campus. By refusing to step down in a timely fashion, she prevented the infusion from the outside of new blood and new ideas in the form of new leadership at the top. Latino/a faculty were particularly disturbed that, by entrenching herself in the position for so long, she in effect blocked the possibility of a Latino/a educator (or maybe two, or even three) having a chance to be president at UTEP during the 31 years of her reign.

Luckily for Natalicio, her term as president coincided with important developments in the state in the 1990s and early 2000s that allowed UTEP to make impressive progress. The advancements, which had little to do with her, nonetheless enhanced her image as a “can-do” leader and strengthened her hold on the presidency. As the university grew larger in enrollment and acquired more impressive buildings, support for her increased in the community, including among Latino/a leaders, with whom she established relationships. Most El Pasoans perceived her as being dedicated to her job. On campus, students became fond of her; many saw her as a caring grandmother figure. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds appreciated her determination to keep UTEP an open-admissions campus, a policy often criticized by faculty and others who pushed for higher standards for incoming students.

The most significant development for UTEP during Natalicio’s long tenure had to do with advances in graduate education, especially the addition of doctoral programs to the curriculum. In 1987, the Mexican American Legal and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) opened the door to the possibility of expanding graduate offerings when they filed a discrimination lawsuit that accused the higher education system in Texas of underfunding universities along the border and preventing them from having doctoral programs. That lawsuit would have far-reaching consequences.

I was thrilled with the MALDEF and LULAC decision to challenge the state and provided some information to the attorneys as they prepared the lawsuit. I monitored the progress of the legal action closely until 1988, when I left UTEP for a position at the University of Arizona. From a distance I learned that Natalicio had joined the bandwagon and now spoke openly of the need to expand graduate education at UTEP.

Her support for new doctoral programs caused me to think back to 1986 or early 1987 when she, then UTEP Vice President for Academic Affairs, scolded me, when I was Director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, for having written a critical letter to the head of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. I accused that board of maintaining a colonial system in the state by concentrating doctoral programs at U.T. Austin, Texas A&M University, and Texas Tech University, and prohibiting universities along the border, which had heavy Latino/a enrollments, from having similar programs. Part of my argument was that graduate credit hours were worth much more than undergraduate credit hours in money allocated by the state to universities. Therefore UTEP, which at the time produced predominantly undergraduate hours, received much less money than the universities that generated substantial graduate credit hours. That clearly was discrimination.

Natalicio disliked the fact that I rocked the boat with my letter to a state bureaucrat. In my response to her reprimand, I told her that she should join me in calling out the discrimination in the system instead of worrying about following proper protocols. It seemed to me she was staying neutral on the matter of state bias toward UTEP and other border universities. I thought she should be leading the fight for more graduate programs. I was pleased that the lawsuit nudged her to become assertive on this issue.

In 1992, a district judge ruled in favor of the MALDEF/LULAC lawsuit, sparking optimism along the border regarding graduate programs. The following year, however, the Texas Supreme Court struck down that decision, saying that the state was in the process of increasing educational opportunities for minority students. Disappointment set in among lawsuit supporters, but not for long. The Supreme Court ruling hardly mattered because the lawsuit succeeded in pressuring the Texas state legislature to allocate additional hundreds of millions of dollars to border universities to address existing inequities. The lawsuit also prodded the UT system to approve new doctoral programs for those institutions. UTEP, which already had one doctoral program (in geology, created in 1974), capitalized on the new political climate generated by MALDEF and LULAC and sought approval for new programs. By 2003 UTEP had 10 new doctoral programs, and that number increased to 22 by 2020.

El Pasoans unfamiliar with the lawsuit and its impact on the Texas higher education system credited Natalicio with bringing about the unprecedented transformation in graduate education at UTEP. She apparently did not discourage that interpretation, according to many people. Informants commented that she did not sufficiently acknowledge that MALDEF and LULAC deserved all the credit. Be that as it may, Natalicio did work hard to get approval from the state for new doctoral programs and pushed the faculty to increase research productivity in order for UTEP to qualify for designation as a Research 1 institution. In 2018, UTEP achieved the important goal of becoming a R1 university.

The other fortuitous development for Natalicio during her long tenure as president was the explosive growth of the UTEP student population, from 15,000 in 1988, when she became president, to 25,000 in 2019, when UT System officials reportedly pressured her to retire. The increase in numbers meant expansion of the budget, while the dramatic increase in Hispanic students meant designation of UTEP as a Hispanic-serving university. That classification ushered in new possibilities for securing state, federal, and private foundation grants for teaching, research, and student-support programs. Natalicio basked in the spotlight as the leader of a Hispanic university on the move, pioneering new methods and approaches in the quest to improve minority education. She adjusted well to that new role and took advantage of the good publicity and the benefits that accompanied national recognition.

When Natalicio finally retired, she hoped the Regents would name a well-qualified educator to take her place, someone who could effectively carry on the work she had done at UTEP. Various sources have told me that she was greatly disappointed when the Regents appointed Dr. Heather Wilson as her successor. Plenty of other El Pasoans were disappointed as well.

Dr. Heather Wilson, 2019- [9]

In early March 2019, the Regents named Heather Wilson, the then Secretary of the U.S. Air Force and a former U.S. Congressperson (Republican), business consultant/lobbyist, and short-term president of a small technical university, as the next president of UTEP. Wilson had represented New Mexico in the U.S. Congress as a Republican (1998 to 2009), operated a consulting firm (2009-2013), had run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate (2011-2012), served as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (2013-2017), and (in 2017) secured an appointment in the Trump Administration as the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force, a position she held until May 31, 2019.

Wilson’s appointment provoked a furor among many El Pasoans due to her past conservative voting record, anti-LGBTQ policies, controversial consulting practices, no teaching background, and minimal experience in higher education administration. Another opportunity to install a Latino/a educator at the helm of El Paso’s premier institution of higher learning had been squandered by the Regents.

On- and off-campus critics blamed powerful economic elites on the search committee for imposing an academically-unqualified and controversial public figure on a large Hispanic-serving university whose student body was nearly 80 percent Latino/a, and, in addition, enrolled over 1,000 students from Mexico. These demographics were ignored in Wilson’s selection, giving rise to numerous questions, especially among Mexican Americans.

What major considerations drove Wilson’s appointment? Was she picked because of her potential usefulness to the business community in El Paso and elsewhere in Texas? Was she chosen to further enhance the control of Republicans over higher education institutions in the state? Was the Regents’ intent to select someone who could facilitate the spread of conservative ideological thinking among college students in El Paso?

Because answers to such questions were not forthcoming from those who chose Wilson, some educated reasoning and informed speculation are in order regarding the role played by the most influential people who took part in the search process. Unfortunately for the public at large, the system of selecting university presidents in Texas in near-total secrecy has become institutionalized. Wealth and politics more than ever play a decisive role in the determination of the types of candidates that are acceptable to those power brokers who select state university presidents.

Early Stage of the Process to Replace Natalicio

In the fall 2018, the Regents formed a Search Advisory Committee to make recommendations for Natalicio’s replacement. Mexican Americans immediately began thinking of the need to fill the vacancy with an educator who had the background and experience to function well in the unique bilingual, bicultural border environment of El Paso.

Anticipating the impending formation of the search committee, in August 2018, 28 Mexican American community leaders from a variety of professional backgrounds expressed their collective sentiments in a statement that addressed the kind of educator they felt UTEP required. Acting as the spokesman for the group, I sent the statement via an email to Dr. Steven Leslie, the Executive Vice Chancellor of the U.T. System and the person charged with organizing the search committee and coordinating the search process. Dr. Leslie acknowledged receipt of the document and indicated he would share it with the Regents and the search committee.

In their statement, the 28 Mexican Americans, most of them UTEP graduates, offered their help with the identification and evaluation of candidates, and requested that three at-large Mexican American community representatives be added to the search committee. The statement also specified basic qualifications, skills, and experience considered significant for the new UTEP president to have in order to successfully address the educational needs of a campus whose students were predominantly Mexican Americans. Below are key recommendations contained in the document. These suggestions coincided with thinking that UTEP faculty had expressed to the committee as well.

• Academic administrative experience in a senior role such as university provost or vice president for academic affairs
• Commitment to the unique mission of a border-based university
• Experience and commitment to international education, global reach, study abroad, international student recruitment, and foreign language education
• Demonstrated commitment to diversity among faculty and administrators
• Experience in a Hispanic-serving institution
• Proficiency in Spanish strongly preferred
• Bicultural in a U.S.-Mexico border community context

As it turned out, given the eventual selection of Wilson, an unknown number of members of the search committee—and ultimately the Regents—ignored the above criteria, even though the job announcement in general did include similar desired qualifications. The Regents also disregarded the request that three Mexican American at-large community delegates be added to the committee. The official “community” representatives appointed by the Regents turned out to be seven prominent business people, six from El Paso—Paul Foster, Woody Hunt, Dee Margo, Renard Johnson, Sally Hurt-Deitch, and Edward Escudero, and one from Houston—Mike Loya, who had ties to El Paso. Others on the committee included Regents, presidents of other U.T. campuses, UTEP faculty and administrators, and a UTEP student and an alumnus. That lineup raised serious concerns that Foster, Hunt, and Margo, three wealthy and politically influential El Pasoans, would dominate proceedings and steer the selection of candidates their way.

Was Wilson’s Appointment Politically Motivated?

In early March 2019, the Regents named Wilson as the sole finalist for the UTEP presidency. Suspicions surfaced immediately that Foster, Hunt, and Margo were Wilson’s main promoters. All three were high-profile members of the Republican Party in a state whose government had been dominated by Republicans for decades. Both Foster and Hunt had been big donors to the Republican Party, and both had served on the Board of Regents, with Foster serving as past chairman and acting as vice-chairman at the time the UTEP decision was made. Again, using educated reasoning and informed speculation, it is not far-fetched to conclude that Foster, with backing from Hunt and Margo, played the pivotal role in persuading the Regents to unanimously confirm Wilson as the new UTEP president.

Wilson’s selection substantiated the misgivings about the search process initially communicated by the 28 Mexican American leaders, as well as the suspicions conveyed by several community persons at UTEP on October 2, 2018, the day the search committee held its only public meeting. At that gathering, which was attended by campus and community people, the speakers made known their opposition to the overrepresentation of business interests on the committee, decried the exclusion of Mexican American at-large community representatives, protested the secretive manner in which the search would be conducted, and denounced the confining of the evaluation of candidates solely to the search committee and the Regents. The community spokespersons further objected to the Regents’ prerogative of either choosing a finalist from candidates submitted by the committee, or totally ignoring those recommendations and making their own selection. To many observers, the top-down, exclusionist, and secretive rules and procedures of the search process looked like a sham.

The stacking of the committee with powerful businesspersons and the expected receptiveness of the Regents to a candidate with conservative credentials had its anticipated result—the appointment of Wilson, a right-wing politician/consultant/bureaucrat and latecomer to the world of higher education.

Reaction to Wilson’s Appointment in the Community

Wilson’s selection shocked and angered many El Pasoans, especially Mexican Americans who had expected that a Latino or Latina educator would finally be named to the position. Why would the interests and desires of the majority population in El Paso, and on campus, be rejected so blatantly? How could the search committee and the Regents stray so far from the well-established practice of choosing university presidents from the ranks of experienced career scholars/administrators? And how could they choose a political figure who had an ultra-conservative voting record and whose questionable consulting activities had for years been rebuked by ethical watchdog organizations? To the community, the Wilson choice added up to a political appointment of a nationally known Republican by well-placed Texas Republicans.

Critics, in particular members of the Community First Coalition, a confederation of twenty community organizations in El Paso, pointed out that Wilson’s meager background in higher education did not prepare her to run a large, Hispanic-centered university like UTEP. Wilson spoke no Spanish and had paltry knowledge or acquaintance with borderlands Mexican heritage, history, and culture. After her stint in the U.S. Congress, she had led a small, technical institution in South Dakota with 2,800 students, 86 percent of whom were of white European American descent. How could she leapfrog into a Carnegie-classified Research 1 institution of 25,000 students who were overwhelmingly of ethnic minority background? Further, Wilson had never served as a faculty member, a departmental chairperson, a dean, a vice president or provost. At universities, these experiences are essential for anyone who aspires for the highest-level decision-making position in which critical judgments are made about teaching, research, and tenure.

Equally as troubling, her votes in the U.S. Congress and her ratings from mainstream education, civil rights, and environmental groups revealed a protracted record of ultra-conservative interests and values that clashed sharply with the progressive interests and values of most UTEP students and most El Pasoans. The strong liberal leanings of El Pasoans are demonstrated in the overwhelming electoral preference for Democratic candidates over Republicans for many decades. Wilson’s right-wing policy positions were of great concern to a community that embraced equal treatment and opportunity for all. Wilson was rated zero percent by the Human Rights Campaign for her staunch opposition to LGBTQ rights and only 13 percent by the ACLU because of her stance against civil rights legislation. She had also voted against funding for African American and Hispanic-serving educational institutions while in Congress.

Regarding her business dealings and influence peddling in Washington, D.C., she had been called “the top illegal lobbyist” for her consulting and billing practices on behalf of the Lockheed subsidiary Sandia Corporation. In 2007 the Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, rated her among the 22 most corrupt members of the U.S. Congress and, in 2017, CREW raised questions about her appointment as Secretary of the Air Force. Also, during the George W. Bush administration, Wilson played a key role in the 2007 Karl Rove-engineered political hit job against seven U.S. Attorneys, including David Iglesias of New Mexico. The scandalous, Wilson-assisted dismissal of Iglesias, in addition to the firing of the other U.S. Attorneys, unduly politicized the justice system and caused disgust throughout the country. [10]

After the naming of Wilson by the Regents as the sole UTEP finalist, the El Paso County Democratic Party passed a no-confidence vote against her and the Texas Democratic Party asked that her name be withdrawn from consideration, while numerous Democratic legislators from El Paso and elsewhere questioned her qualifications for the UTEP job and criticized the search process. El Paso State Senator José Rodríguez characterized Dr. Wilson’s appointment as “disrespectful of UTEP students and faculty, as well as the community members who reached out to the U.T. System at the beginning of the selection process. It also illustrates why this selection process, which provided very little campus or community engagement and produced only one finalist, is inherently flawed.” [11]

Not surprisingly, a segment of the community did back Wilson’s selection. She had support among businesspersons and among politically conservative El Pasoans. The local Republican Party endorsed her appointment, as did 700 people who signed a CitizenGo.org petition created by the Binational Pro-Family Pro-Life League of El Paso. Her biggest boosters in El Paso were Foster, Hunt, and Margo, with Foster and Margo making glowing statements about Wilson to the press upon her selection. To my knowledge, other members of the search committee did not issue public statements.

Reaction to Wilson’s Appointment among UTEP Faculty and Students

UTEP professors, administrators, staff, and students were even more stunned than community people when the news broke that Wilson had been named the sole finalist. A few faculty members expressed their outrage publicly, but most, afraid of repercussions, quietly shared their dismay with colleagues and friends. A survey conducted by the UTEP Faculty Senate revealed that 52.3 percent of the professoriate opposed Wilson’s appointment, 27.0 percent supported it, and 20.7 did not express an opinion.

Among many of the students, the Wilson announcement hit like a ton of bricks. The news ignited a furious movement, especially among LGBTQ students, who knew about Wilson’s homophobic views. Students and community sympathizers immediately launched a change.org petition that called for the Regents to withdraw her candidacy. Simultaneously, activists held loud demonstrations on and off campus. Students employed social media quite effectively with an online group that had over 1,500 followers. In the UTEP Student Government Association annual elections, candidates’ positions on the presidential appointee became a key issue. Eventually over 10,000 people signed the student led “UTEP Deserves Better” online petition, which read, in part:

Wilson has a clear history of being anti-LGBTQ, as reflected in her voting record as a former U.S. congresswoman from New Mexico and more recently in her position as Air Force Secretary, where she reversed a rule to allow for anti-gay discrimination in 2018.

For many students and staff, the university is a safe space to become and be freely who they are. Hiring someone that clearly does not reflect the ability to support that for LGBTQ students is harmful. Moving Heather Wilson as the sole finalist, and potential next president of UTEP, endangers the university’s ability to earnestly act on and serve in the best interests of all students.

Wilson attacked an anti-LGBT bullying bill, she voted in favor of a federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban marriage equality and voted against protections to the LGBT community. She also voted against a bill that would protect people in the workplace from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.

Other major concerns include Wilson’s record of voting against the interests of students who depend on financial aid or loans to pay for their education. Records show she voted against lowering student loan interest rates and against providing year-round Pell grants (which is money the government provides to support students with financial need) and voted against millions of dollars that would have supported a new graduate Hispanic Serving Institution program.

UTEP deserves better. UTEP and the El Paso community deserve a president that reflects the university’s values and the ability to serve and represent the best interests of all students. [12]

Based on the evidence regarding the search as well as political dynamics in El Paso, it is hard not to conclude that businesspersons, several with strong ties to the Republican Party, colluded with the Board of Regents to carry out a political appointment. To many El Pasoans, especially Mexican Americans and UTEP students and faculty, Wilson was emphatically the wrong choice. She was viewed as a lightning rod, especially to LGBTQ people and civil rights advocates. She stirred controversy and division, lacked the academic qualifications and personal experience required to run a large border university, and her past business practices raised questions about ethics and conflicts of interest.

As Wilson settled into her new job in August 2019, many people kept wondering why she had been selected.

  • Did the firm hired by the Regents to assist in the search vet Dr. Wilson properly? Did members of the search committee have complete information about her meager qualifications for the job, her problematic voting record on minority and LGBTQ issues, and her questionable ethics as a lobbyist and consultant? Word leaked out that at least one member of the search committee knew little or nothing about Wilson’s weighty negative baggage.
  • Besides Wilson, how many other candidates did the search committee submit to the Regents?
  • Were there Latinos or Latinas among the candidates considered by the Regents? If so, why was one not chosen as the sole finalist?
  • Why did the search committee and the Regents consider military and business experience, along with token higher education experience, of greater significance in choosing Wilson, than academic experience possessed by other candidates in positions such as university vice-president, provost, or president?
  • What role did Wilson’s connections with government agencies and lobbying background play in her selection? Did contract procurement possibilities for local real estate companies, construction corporations, manufacturing firms, and other businesses enter into the decision-making process?
  • Finally, was conservative ideology a reason for Wilson’s appointment, given the expectation that she would respond favorably to possible offers from the super-billionaire Koch brothers (David and the now deceased Charles) to fund ultra-conservative or libertarian programs and institutes at UTEP? And/or to underwrite research and teaching projects of conservative faculty? And/or to encourage study groups among students who would be enticed by “Koch scholarships” to participate in discussions that emphasize why unregulated capitalism is good and government is bad? Foster in particular must have thought of the Koch-funded “academic” initiatives that have infiltrated numerous other universities. After all, Foster had direct contact with the Koch brothers, attending at least one of their fund-raising events and meeting personally with Charles Koch. In 2014 Foster gave $1 million dollars to the Freedom Partners Action Fund, or FPAF, the Koch-sponsored Super PAC that was dedicated to electing right-wing politicians who advocated for such policies as slashing government regulations, cutting public social programs, and enacting voter suppression laws. [13]

Conclusion

The way in which Arleigh Templeton, Haskell Monroe, Diana Natalicio, and Heather Wilson were selected to become UTEP presidents amply illustrates the colonial control maintained by the University of Texas Board of Regents over El Paso’s premier institution of higher learning.

Wilson’s appointment raised more disturbing questions than previous selections because of her right-wing ideology, the decisive influence of powerful businessmen, and the role of politics in the process. As centers of learning and free exchange of ideas, universities should not be politicized, and politicization is precisely what happened at UTEP. Wilson, as well as several of the local businesspersons who selected her, have been high-profile political figures. Based on past deals and concessions extracted by Foster, Hunt, and Margo from El Paso’s government, it is not unreasonable to believe that they expected payback from Wilson. This did not bode well for UTEP students and El Pasoans in general, especially for the Latino/a community, the largest constituency of the university by far and with whom Wilson had the weakest of ties.

More than a century has passed since Texas Western College, or UTEP, was founded, and a Latino/a educator has never been appointed as president. When will that finally happen? To be sure, just having a Latino/a president at UTEP for the sake of sending a politically correct message is not the idea. Specifically, UTEP needs a well-qualified, bilingual, bicultural Hispanic educator who can easily communicate and interact with the Mexican American-majority student body and the Mexican American-majority population in El Paso; a strong, independent Latino/a individual not beholden to special interests; a leader who would put the concerns of the students and the community above those of local political and business elites.

I am not optimistic that the current system of selecting presidents of institutions in the University of Texas system will allow for the appointment of such an educator at UTEP. Policy makers who have a conservative vision of who should be at the helm of universities remain deeply entrenched in state government and at the University of Texas Board of Regents. Moreover, El Paso influentials like Paul Foster and Woody Hunt continue to maintain their connections with the Regents, thereby holding on to their positions as de facto gatekeepers to the UTEP presidency.

Things might change if liberals are successful in turning Texas into a Democratic state, ushering in a new political era with progressive politicians taking over the state government; these new officeholders would then be able to appoint Regents who would be more sympathetic to the interests of Latinos/as—and thus more open to appointing the kind of Hispanic president at UTEP that so many El Pasoans have wanted for so long.

About the Author: Dr. Oscar J. Martínez is a retired history professor from UTEP and the University of Arizona. Martinez is the author of numerous books and articles about the history of El Paso and other areas of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He is currently writing a book entitled Latinx El Paso: Odyssey of an Hispanic/Mexican American Community.

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Footnotes:

  1. The Prospector, January 26, 1972.
  2. The Prospector, January 26, 1972.
  3. The Prospector, January 20, 1972. Because of lack of access to court records and law books during the Covid-19 pandemic, the final disposition of this lawsuit has yet to be determined. Was the lawsuit withdrawn by the plaintiffs, or was it dismissed by the court? Further research will provide the answer.
  4. The Prospector, March 21, 1972.
  5. The Prospector, September 20, 1972
  6. W. H. Timmons, El Paso: A Borderlands History (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1990), 304.
  7. Texas Monthly, May 1986, quoted in The Prospector Oct 15, 1987 p. 17.
  8. The Prospector, March 3, 1988.
  9. This section is a slightly revised version of Section V of El Paso Community First Coalition, Who Rules El Paso? Private Gain, Public Policy, and the Community Interest (El Paso: Community First Coalition, 2020).
  10. https://www.citizensforethics.org/press-release/crew-releases-third-annual-most-corrupt-members-of-congress-report/https://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/records-show-how-air-force-nominee-skirted-lobbying-restrictions-234780
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/charlestiefer/2015/08/31/lockheed-fined-4-7-million-for-fraudulent-taxpayer-paid-lobbying-with-most-corrupt-ex-rep-wilson/?fbclid=IwAR3kJ4zjD45K6AZNt65J-McvJqmoZib56aefeG3Ip0Sga_H7jzN4JFm4C0I#6a0f586b46c0
  11. https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/opinion/2019/04/12/uteps-next-president-not-representative-el-paso-jose-rodriguez/3449548002/
  12. https://www.change.org/p/texas-board-of-regents-utep-deserves-better-stop-anti-lgbtq-heather-wilson-from-becoming-utep-s-next-president
  13. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/02/charles-koch-gave-25m-to-our-university-has-it-become-a-rightwing-mouthpiece?utm_term= https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/02/charles-koch-gave-25m-to-our-university-has-it-become-a-rightwing-mouthpiece?utm_term=RWRpdG9yaWFsX0d1YXJkaWFuVG9kYXlVUy0xOTA1MDI%3D&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayUS&CMP=GTUS_email
    https://www.facingsouth.org/2015/02/meet-the-southern-tycoons-helping-fund-the-koch-br.html; https://www.denverpost.com/2014/02/10/column-taking-a-touchy-look-at-links-to-politically-active-billionares/

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