SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Board of Higher Education has authorized an investigation of remarks by Utah State University President Noelle Cockett to football team members regarding interim head football coach Frank Maile's religious and cultural background.
The comments prompted USU to cancel its game at Colorado State University scheduled for Dec. 12 because of concerns raised by football players about religious and cultural discrimination in the search for a new football coach, the university said in a statement.
The board approved an independent investigation of the allegations and authorized Utah System of Higher Education Deputy Commissioner and general counsel Geoff Landward "to engage one or more law firms and work with Utah State University legal counsel to conduct the investigation," according to the motion approved by the board.
The review will be a joint investigation with USU conducted by independent investigators, an agency spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme said Cockett did not participate in the meeting conducted online Tuesday, most of it in executive session.
Woolstenhulme said there is no specific timetable for the investigation, explaining that many football players have returned to their homes for winter break so it may take additional time for investigators to conduct interviews about what occurred when Cockett and USU athletic director John Hartwell met with team members on Zoom.
"We want it to be a thorough investigation and we want it to be done as quickly as possible, but we also want it to be as thorough as it possibly can be so we haven't set the timeline, but we do want to expedite it and move forward as soon as we possibly can," Woolstenhulme said.
The Utah Board of Higher Education has the sole authority to hire, evaluate, discipline and terminate presidents of Utah's public colleges and universities.
Maile, who is Polynesian, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and grew up in Utah. He interviewed for the head football coach position and according to his earlier statement, was not notified of a formal hiring decision until after Cockett and Hartwell met with the team.
"It is my understanding — from members of the team leadership council who attended a meeting with Utah State President Noelle Cockett and Athletic Director John Hartwell — that I was not ultimately considered for the position of head coach at Utah State (my beloved alma mater) because of concerns that my religion and Pacific Islander culture would negatively impact the university's future football program," Maile's statement said in part.
Some team members advocated for Maile during the meeting with Cockett and Hartwell, while others advocated for the team, one team member told KSL.
USU's new head football coach, Blake Anderson, was introduced during a press conference Monday on the USU campus. He is the former head coach at Arkansas State University, where he has served the past seven seasons.
The Aggies' former head coach, Gary Andersen, was fired mid-season. USU ended the season with a 1-5 conference record, its only win under Maile against winless University of New Mexico on Thanksgiving Day.
Maile has twice served as interim head coach of the Aggies in recent years and was in his fifth year as the Aggies' assistant head coach. He also played for the Aggies as an undergraduate.
Maile, in a recent statement released by the Salt Lake public relations firm Wilkinson Ferrari & Co., called on USU's board of trustees to "demand a thorough and independent investigation of religious, cultural and racial discrimination throughout the Utah State University."
Ferrari, the firm's co-founder, said Maile had no comment about the higher education board's actions. She confirmed that Maile has retained an attorney.
Cockett has served as president of USU since 2017, selected by the then-Board of Regents in 2016 after a nationwide search. She is the 16th president of the university and its first female president.
Much of Cockett's professional career has been at USU, serving as the university's executive vice president and provost for about three years prior to her selection as president. Previously, she was dean of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences and vice president for Extension and Agriculture at USU. She joined the university in 1990 as an associate professor.
Cockett grew up on a beef cattle ranch in eastern Montana and earned a bachelor of science degree in animal science from Montana State University and her master's and doctorate degrees in animal breeding and genetics from Oregon State University. She developed an internationally recognized research program in sheep genomics.
Woolstenhulme, prior to his appointment as higher education commissioner, was vice president of statewide campuses for USU during Cockett's administration and has known her for several years.
"As long as I've worked with her, this is probably the hardest thing she's dealt with but she's hanging in there," he said.
Throughout my professional career and, especially as president of USU, I have welcomed the opportunity to meet directly and often with students about their experiences. Regardless of how difficult the conversations might be in the coming days, I remain committed to giving our students a voice.
–Utah State University President Noelle Cockett
Woolstenhulme said Cockett, who is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has successfully worked at USU for decades. "This is out of context for Noelle," he said.
USU is a public university that is part of the Utah System of Higher Education. Some national surveys say 70% of USU students are members of the church.
In an earlier statement, Cockett said she was "devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone's religious background."
The statement continued: "Throughout my professional career and, especially as president of USU, I have welcomed the opportunity to meet directly and often with students about their experiences. Regardless of how difficult the conversations might be in the coming days, I remain committed to giving our students a voice."
Results of an anonymous survey of 81 USU players conducted by a teammate indicates about three-fourths of the players surveyed participated in the Zoom call on Dec. 8 with Cockett and Hartwell. The vast majority of respondents said they heard things about the call that concerned them.
When asked to detail their concerns, several players brought up the remarks allegedly made by Cockett with respect to Maile's background "referring to his religion and upbringing in Utah having an effect on the football culture if he were to receive the HC (head coaching) job," one respondent said.