LOGAN – In the days following a Dec. 8, 2020 Zoom meeting involving Utah State University President Noelle E. Cockett, Director of Athletics John Hartwell and about 53 student athletes, both the USU Board of Trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education started external reviews related to concerns student-athletes expressed about the content of the meeting. Football players requested the meeting based on concerns that the football program’s interim coach Frank Maile was being passed over for the USU head coaching position, following the departure of Gary Andersen.
The Utah State Board of Trustees retained the law firm of Stoel Rives and the Utah Board of Higher Education retained the law firm of Ray Quinney & Nebeker with instructions to conduct a coordinated investigation regarding the content of the December 8 Zoom meeting, paying particular attention to identifying, to the extent possible, remarks made during the meeting.
The external investigators wrote in their joint review:
“We conclude that neither Pres. Cockett nor 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, we conclude 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. Unfortunately, likely due to some of the complicating factors expressed, Pres. Cockett’s intent was not effectively communicated to or understood by the athletes, who genuinely felt that Pres. Cockett’s general concerns about inclusivity expressed or implied reservations about Coach Maile.”
According to USU, their Board of Trustees reviewed the report this week and board chair Jody Burnett met with the Utah Board of Higher Education Friday morning.
“We greatly appreciate the student-athletes’ willingness to participate in this external review,” said Burnett in a university statement. “We hear them and acknowledge their concerns. Over the spring semester, the university’s leadership and Trustees will continue to address the issues raised by the student-athletes during the review.”
Burnett added, “The Trustees continue to have great faith and confidence in President Cockett’s leadership of Utah State, including her proactive approach to advancing the institution’s diversity and inclusion goals. We recognize we have much to do in addressing diversity and inclusion issues, and we are committed to doing that work, as a board and as a university community.”
The student-athletes who spoke during the 73-minute meeting on December 8th talked of Coach Frank Maile’s coaching style, commitment and his status as role model. According to investigators who conducted interviews one player mentioned his own religious background and Coach Maile’s background. Pres. Cockett said that religious diversity is important, noting that the football team is a very diverse group. She said then that Utah is an “interesting place to live.”
Reading from his notes after the Dec. 8 meeting, Athletic Director John Hartwell told investigators he would not characterize any of the comments in the meeting as raising concerns about Coach Maile’s religious or ethnic background.
He said Pres. Cockett spoke of the importance of diversity and inclusiveness and that she mentioned a program developed for USU athletes in 2018 to help make sure all athletes had equal educational opportunities.
Hartwell noted that there had been some “eyes raised” when Pres. Cockett made the comment about Utah/Cache Valley being an interesting place to live. He did not sense ill-will from the athletes in response to Pres. Cockett’s remark, however.
During a December 22, 2020 interview, Pres. Cockett recounted a Nov. 23 meeting with Coach Maile, requested by the coach. At that time she said she understood Coach Maile had scheduled the meeting to promote his application for the head coaching position. Coach Maile explained, then, his “three pillars” of recruiting which he described as “Utahns, Polynesians and missionaries.” Pres. Cockett said Coach Maile’s statement made her “a little worried he would not be inclusive in his recruitment strategy.”
In a Dec. 31 interview Pres. Cockett said she did not recall talking about Coach Maile’s recruiting strategy with the athletes, but that if she had done so, her focus would have been on ”inclusion.”
“In my attempt as president of USU to connect with the students around a sensitive topic, I have learned this caused some students discomfort,” said President Cockett in a statement released by the university. “It was certainly not my intent for this to result in a negative experience, and for that, I sincerely apologize.”
“I look forward to continuing progress on the diversity and inclusion efforts that were outlined before the pandemic set in last spring,” Cockett said.
After reviewing the full report, the Board of Higher Education issued the following statement:
“We understand the seriousness of the concerns raised by USU student athletes, and we are grateful for the thorough joint investigation conducted by Stoel Rives and Ray Quinney & Nebeker. After reviewing this report, we also understand that both President Cockett and the student athletes started the meeting on December 8, 2020, intent on discussing two different topics. As the report states, ‘Because the athletes were focused on expressing their support for Coach Maile, we conclude that it is likely they understandably interpreted Pres. Cockett’s comments as a criticism of or commentary on Coach Maile, which triggered a number of athletes to defend Coach Maile as being inclusive and supportive of athletes regardless of their religious background.’ Whereas, President Cockett wanted to discuss the ‘athletes’ well-being. Top of mind…was her genuine concern that USU meet its goal of being an inclusive environment for all.’
“Though some remarks made were interpreted as potential religious or cultural bias, they were not intended as such. President Cockett has long demonstrated her commitment to make USU a welcoming, nurturing environment for people from all backgrounds. Following the findings in this report, the Utah Board of Higher Education, the president’s resource and review team, and the Board of Trustees will continue to work with President Noelle Cockett to foster an inclusive, safe campus community with open pathways of communication and support. Based on this report and the input of the Utah State University Board of Trustees, the Board expresses its unanimous support for President Cockett.
President Cockett has instructed the USU Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to finish a public report for the fall 2019 climate survey within the next few months. The task force will also hold virtual focus groups on inclusion during the spring 2021 semester.