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Sexual assault was at the forefront of USU's presidential candidate forum

Utah State's Old Main tower with A's on either side is in the foreground as snowcapped mountains are in the background.
USU
Old Main at the Utah State University campus in Logan.

Three finalists for the role of Utah State University’s president — Rodney D. Bennett, Elizabeth R. Cantwell and Kenneth L. White — spoke during public meetings on Wednesday as the Utah Board of Higher Education closes in on selecting USU’s new leader.

The three are looking to replace outgoing President Noelle Cockett, who announced in November she was resigning from the jobeffective July 1 after six years leading USU.

While Cockett can be credited with expanding the university’s push for more higher education in rural areas of Utah via numerous extension campuses around Utah, her tenure was overshadowed by controversy.

Since she took over in 2017, Utah State has seen numerous lawsuits over the Aggie football program, toxic environments within USU’s piano department and the university poorly managing sexual assaults — with the latter resulting in a Department of Justice investigation. The DOJ concluded that since 2013, long before Cockett took over as president, Utah State failed to appropriately respond to complaints of sexual assault.

Dozens of USU faculty and community members listened to the three candidates field questions in the Logan campus’ Eccles Conference Center. Faculty, staff and students asked candidates about how they would address students’ mental health needs, support veterans and meet sustainability goals on campus.

Troubled history looms large

Campus safety was among the first topics discussed during the forums, with attendees asking candidates about the university’s turbulent recent years and how they would address sexual assault on campus if picked.

Bennett, a former president at the University of Southern Mississippi, said his previous university has also grappled with sexual assaults on campus, and he said he had prevented hiring people with a history of sexual misconduct.

When asked how she would address sexual assault on campus, Cantwell, an administrator at the University of Arizona, stressed the need for clear, enforceable policies and having appropriately trained investigators.

“It is really a delicate and important part of what we’re going to do if we’re going to bring a sense of security to people here, and at any university,” Cantwell said.

She added that she knows USU’s new incoming police chief, Jason Brei, quite well, as he was a member of University of Arizona’s police force since 2000. Brei was named as the new USU police chief earlier this month, and he is set to start the job on July 1.

White, the lone candidate with USU credentials as a faculty member, was asked directly what he has done to address sexual misconduct on campus.

“That’s relatively easy to answer,” White said. “I’ve had one, shall we say, incident in the college [of Agriculture and Applied Sciences], and that resulted in a termination. And if I became president, the same philosophy exists. There’s no room for sexual misconduct in this environment.”

He added that families entrust the university with their children, and “we need to create an environment where [sexual assault] isn’t a concern,” adding that also applies to employees.

“There’s absolutely no tolerance, no alibi, no excuse to justify sexual misconduct,” White said.

Varied biographies and different visions

Two candidates vying to lead Utah State come from different pockets of the country, while the third is a familiar face for the Logan community. Each gave their unique visions for the future of USU, while pledging to keep the familiar character of the institution as a land grant university.

Bennett is the former president at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he became the first Black president to lead the university. He held the job for just under 10 years, according to his biography published by USU.

Under Bennett, USM saw over $300 million worth of capital improvements. However, Bennett was also USM president during a scandal involving former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, where roughly $5 million from the Mississippi Department of Human Services went toward building a volleyball stadium at USM.

Bennett has not been accused of wrongdoing in the scandal, as text messages made public show he did not approve of Favre trying to use state funds to build the stadium. According to the Mississippi Free Press, Bennett said in a text message to former governor Phil Bryant, “The bottom line is (Favre) personally guaranteed the (stadium) project, and on his word and handshake we proceeded. It’s time for him to pay up-it really is just that simple.”

Bennett announced in January 2022 that he would step down from leading USM before his contract would expire this June. The Favre scandal was not mentioned during his candidate forum.

Cantwell currently serves as the University of Arizona’s Senior Vice President for Research & Innovation, according to her biography published by USU. Some of her responsibilities include overseeing the university’s UA Tech Park, a large research park in Tuscon that contributes $1.7 billion to the local economy.

During her forum, Cantwell touted her past as boosting startups and helping UA become more self-sufficient, billing that self-reliance as a way to make the university more affordable for students.

She said UA has moved away from relying on state funding. She said that in 2008, 60% of UA’s funding was from the state. Now, she said, that number is around 7%.

“We have figured it out,” Cantwell said. “We will do that, but we have to keep our eye on making it affordable, to make it affordable for students.”

Cantwell also serves as a member of the University of Arizona’s Provost’s Council, the leader of which recently resigned over concerns about campus safety after the on-campus shooting death of a professor in October, allegedly at the hands of an expelled student. The shooting caused the university’s faculty senate to issue a vote of no confidence for UA President Robert Robbins.

White, the sole in-state candidate for the presidential job, currently serves as the Vice President for USU Extension, as well as the dean of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, according to his USU biography.

During his talk, White frequently thanked questioners by name as they approached the microphone, making it clear how familiar he is with the USU community.

“I love this institution,” White said. “My blood runs the right color blue.”

White was asked what he would do to make the university more inclusive and foster a healthy institution. He said the president’s job is to lead, and if chosen, he would lead by example.

“There should never be a circumstance where anybody feels unwelcome or that they don’t belong on this campus,” White said.

White is on the board of directors for the Space Dynamics Laboratory and is also credited with being one of those behind the establishment of USU’s new School of Veterinary Medicine, USU’s newest college.

Reporter Jacob Scholl covers northern Utah as part of a newly-created partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. Scholl writes for The Tribune and appears on-air for UPR.