The Utah Board of Higher Education expressed unanimous support for Utah State University President Noelle Cockett on Friday after results were released from the external investigation into comments made by the president during a Dec. 8 meeting with university football players.
In the joint review requested by the USU Board of Trustees and the state Board of Higher Education, the external investigators concluded that neither Cockett nor athletic Director John Hartwell “expressly stated that their ‘primary concern’ about Coach Maile was his religious or cultural background, nor that his background would disqualify him as a coaching candidate.”
Instead, investigators wrote that after interviewing 30 of the 53 athletes present in the meeting, as well as Cockett and Hartwell, they concluded that “the inclusivity concerns raised by Pres. Cockett were designed to promote a discussion with athletes about the degree to which they felt included and welcomed at Utah State.”
According to the report, players called for the meeting with Cockett on Dec. 8. Cockett told investigators she believed it was to discuss their well-being, especially regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The players wanted the meeting to show their support for interim Head Coach Frank Maile and to advocate for his hiring as the school’s new head coach.
Because of the different perspectives the meeting was being approached from, the investigators concluded that concerns Cockett had general inclusivity were “likely understandably interpreted … as a criticism of or commentary on Coach Maile” by players.
The report stated that Cockett did have concerns about the inclusivity of Maile’s recruiting strategy, which she told investigators he described to her in an October 2020 meeting as “Utahns, Polyinisans and missionaries.”
According to the report, it is “likely that during the meeting, Pres. Cockett may have questioned to herself whether Coach Maile would meet her standards for inclusiveness, and perhaps vocalized this concern during the meeting to some extent.”
Although the investigators could not determine if Cockett used the term “Poly” during the meeting to reference Polynesian background or culture, the report stated “the athletes’ primary concern focused on Pres. Cockett’s comments about religion, a topic that Pres. Cockett appears to have addressed in the context of expressing her desire that USU be inclusive with respect to religious background.”
According to the report, Maile’s counsel did not respond to the request to be interviewed by investigators.
USU board of trustees chair Jody Burnett met with the Utah Board of Higher Education on Friday and to discuss steps moving forward and a release from the university stated that they greatly appreciate the student-athletes for participating in the review.
“We hear them and acknowledge their concerns,” Burnett said in the statement. “Over the spring semester, the university’s leadership and Trustees will continue to address the issues raised by the student-athletes during the review.”
In the statement from the university, Cockett said, in her attempt to connect with students around a sensitive topic, she “learned this caused some students discomfort.”
“It was certainly not my intent for this to result in a negative experience” she stated, “and for that, I sincerely apologize.”