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Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL

USU president Noelle Cockett, AD John Hartwell absolved after investigation over alleged discrimination

By Ryan Miller, | Updated - Jan. 15, 2021 at 2:44 p.m. | Posted - Jan. 15, 2021 at 2:12 p.m.

LOGAN — An external review initiated by both the Utah State Board of Trustees and the Utah Board of Higher Education found that neither Utah State University President Noelle E. Cockett nor athletic director John Hartwell "expressly stated that their 'primary concern' about Coach (Frank) Maile was his religious or cultural background."

The Utah Board of Higher Education expressed "unanimous support" for Cockett following reviews conducted by two Salt Lake law firms over remarks she made concerning Maile during a Zoom meeting with some members of the football team in early December.

"Though some remarks made were interpreted as potential or cultural bias, they were not intended as such," the board stated. "President Cockett has long demonstrated her commitment to make USU a welcoming, nurturing environment for people from all backgrounds.

The probe was initiated after players reportedly were "dumbfounded" by remarks made by Cockett during a Dec. 8 video call regarding Maile's candidacy for the head coaching position. The players ultimately opted out of the Aggies' final game in protest.

"During the meeting, we voiced our support for Interim Head Coach Frank Maile," the players said in a statement to Stadium last month. "In response to our comments, their (Cockett and Hartwell's) primary concern was his religious and cultural background."

The 16-page report concluded that Cockett likely made reference to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-Saints but stated it's less clear whether she referred to it in a negative light or stated it was "not inclusive" as some players claimed.

"Pres. Cockett vehemently denies making such a statement, instead stating that she said that Cache Valley was not inclusive," the report said. "As further context for this remark, Pres. Cockett explained that this was not meant as a negative statement, but reflected the challenges some out-of-state students might face in integrating into a rural community that was relatively homogenous with respect to race and religion."

The report said that 26 of the 30 players interviewed said they remember a reference to the church during the video call.

"Most seemed to interpret her comments to refer directly or indirectly to Coach Maile," the report states. "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."

In an interview with Hartwell, investigators asked him to clarify notes he had made during the meeting that read "talks of LDS church" and right below it "not inclusive." Hartwell told investigators he could not recall Cockett or any players specifically making those statements, but did state that if he noted it, someone must have said it. Hartwell did say that if Cockett made the comments, "it would have been in the context of whether students from outside Utah students integrate comfortably into the local community."

Cockett told investigators any reference she made to the church or to "religious diversity" (another thing Hartwell had written in his notes) would have been in reference to Cache Valley's demographics "which causes some students to struggle with feeling included and welcomed."

The video call was not recorded.

While denying any language disparaging Maile's Polynesian heritage, Cockett denied stating she had any problems with it but did state in an interview that she had reservations over Maile's recruiting strategy, which centered around Utahns, Polynesians and missionaries.

"She concedes it is possible she vocalized her concerns about Coach Maile's recruiting strategy," the report reads. "Approximately half the athletes interviewed recalled either an expressed or implied concern about how Coach Maile's religion would impact recruiting."

The report 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."

"Unfortunately, likely due to some of the complicating factors expressed above, President Cockett's intent was not effectively communicated to or understood by the athletes, who genuinely felt that President Cockett's general concerns about inclusivity expressed or implied reservations about Coach Maile."

Following the report's finding, the deans of Utah State's eight colleges held a unanimous vote of confidence in Cockett.

"We know her to be a person of great humanity — kind, considerate, caring, empathic, inclusive, honest, forthright and deeply loyal to the values and aspirations of our beloved university," a statement from the deans said.

The USU Board of Trustees expressed confidence in Cockett's leadership moving forward, "including her proactive approach to advancing the institution's diversity and inclusion goals," USU board of trustees chairman Jody Burnett said in a prepared statement. "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."

Maile was announced as the Boise State associate head coach and defensive line coach earlier this week.


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