The Utah Board of Higher Education unanimously voted to support Utah State University President Noelle Cockett on Friday after investigations into accusations of discriminatory comments concluded this week.
A joint report conducted by two law firms concluded that neither Cockett nor Athletics Director John Hartwell stated expressly that their “primary concern” regarding former USU football interim head coach Frank Maile was his religious or cultural background.
“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,” the board wrote in a statement, explaining students wanted to support Maile’s bid for head coach and Cockett wanted to discuss athlete wellbeing. “Top of mind … was her genuine concern that USU meet its goal of being an inclusive environment for all.’”
According to the investigative report from the law firms, all players on the football roster were randomized, anonymized and divided among six attorneys responsible for interviewing athletes with a common script of questions. After multiple attempts to contact the players, 30 were interviewed. Many players did not respond, according to the report, and two refused.
Hartwell and Cockett were both interviewed as part of the investigation. However, the report states counsel for Maile did not respond to requests for interview.
The religious and culturally discriminatory statements in question vary in the report. Hartwell told investigators Cockett made a comment describing Utah as an “interesting place to live.” Cockett, who has been on faculty at the Cache Valley university since 1990, recalled saying “it could be a little different and a little tough to live here,” and told investigators Cache Valley had “limited diversity” and could be “insular” for those unfamiliar with it.
“For example, members of a university diversity committee had recently reported to Pres. Cockett that they were ‘scared’ by recent ‘Trump parades’ in the area and that one committee member was recently the subject of a racial slur while off campus,” the report states.
Cockett denied to investigators making any statement characterizing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as non-inclusive or saying “anything negative or derogatory” about Maile.
The report states 15 of the students interviewed recalled references by Cockett about either hiring a Latter-day Saint coach, and Maile’s membership in the church, in addition to an “express or implied concern” regarding how Maile’s religious affiliation would affect recruiting.
“Most seemed to interpret her comments to refer directly or indirectly to Coach Maile. However, we could not clearly establish from the interviews whether Pres. Cockett raised specific concerns about whether Coach Maile’s religious identity would disqualify him as a coach,” investigators wrote.
The report also describes concern over Cockett’s alleged use of the term “Poly” and Maile’s Polynesian heritage. Cockett denied to investigators using the term or referencing Maile’s cultural background; Hartwell told investigators he did not recall the term being used but noted the term was used among athletes.
The report states 16 athletes remembered references to “Polynesian,” “Poly” or Polynesian heritage as it related to Maile. And six of them remembered direct statements or implications that Maile’s “Polynesian heritage” created “concerns” — though the perceived nature of the concerns varied among them.
“Four of these six student athletes recall Pres. Cockett raising concerns about how Coach Maile’s Polynesian heritage would impact his ability to recruit. One of the student athletes recalled unspecified concerns being raised by Pres. Cockett and another student athlete recalled Pres. Cockett referencing Coach Maile’s Polynesian heritage and alluding to concerns about how that may impact his ability to create an inclusive environment,” the report states. “Two of these six student athletes also recalled Pres. Cockett using the term ‘Poly’ and asking the students whether it was ‘okay’ for her to use the term.”
Investigators wrote they could not confirm Cockett ever used the term but noted most athletes believed Cockett did not speak with “racially discriminatory animus,” and their primary concern was focused on comments pertaining to religion.
Aside from Cockett and the athletes having separate topics in mind headed into the meeting, the report states the incident may have been affected by two recent incidents of discrimination at USU — an incident involving an athletic department employee who reportedly used a racial slur and an offensive text sent from a former football player.
Investigators collected information from witnesses about the incident involving the racial slur, but did not investigate the incident or USU’s response. Some athletes told investigators they believed the incident had been “swept under the rug.”
“It appears that the student athletes generally feel that these issues remained unresolved,” the report states.
The Herald Journal submitted a records request regarding disciplinary action for the athletic department employee, which the university denied, citing an ongoing investigation.
While denying making discriminatory statements, the report states Cockett conceded it was possible she vocalized concerns regarding Maile’s recruiting strategy — a “three pillars” approach focusing on “Utahns, Polynesians and missionaries” brought to her attention by Maile prior to the Zoom meeting.
In a statement released moments after the board meeting recessed on Friday, the deans of USU’s eight colleges took a unanimous vote of confidence describing Cockett as “a person of great humanity — kind, considerate, caring, empathic, inclusive, honest, forthright, and deeply loyal to the values and aspirations of our beloved university.”
“In my attempt as president of USU to connect with the students around a sensitive topic, I have learned this caused some students discomfort,” Cockett said in a statement. “It was certainly not my intent for this to result in a negative experience, and for that, I sincerely apologize.”
The USU Board of Trustees chair Jody Burnett met with the Utah Board of Higher Education on Friday morning to “discuss steps to move forward.”
“We greatly appreciate the student-athletes’ willingness to participate in this external review,” Burnett said in the 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.”
Maile was recently hired by Boise State University as an associate head coach. Neither spokespersons from public relations agency Wilkinson Ferrari & Co. — who released a statement on behalf of Maile last month — nor Maile himself immediately responded to request for comment.
During the meeting, board members also unanimously voted to make their report on the matter public.