Investigation findings released after athletes’ claims of biased USU football coach search

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utah state university

LOGAN, Utah (ABC4 News) — The Utah Board of Higher Education has released its findings after an investigation at Utah State University.

This comes after a meeting between Utah State University President Noelle E. Cockett, Athletic Director John Hartwell, and about 53 student-athletes where comments were made regarding interim head football coach Frank Maile’s religious and cultural background.

In the days following the meeting, both the USU Board of Trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education initiated external reviews related to concerns students expressed about the meeting’s content.

The Utah Board of Higher Education said in a press release that they have supervisory authority over presidents of Utah’s institutions of higher education, including President Cockett. The board expressed its unanimous support for President Cockett.

In their joint review, the external investigators wrote:

“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 above, 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.”

The USU Board of Trustees received the external review report this week, and board chair Jody Burnett met with the Utah Board of Higher Education Friday to discuss steps to move forward.

“We greatly appreciate the student-athletes’ willingness to participate in this external review,” said Burnett. “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.”

Deans of USU’s eight colleges held a unanimous vote of confidence in President Cockett, stating, “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.”

According to a press release, President Cockett also voiced a commitment to promoting a culture of belonging in the USU community.

“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. “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. 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.

President Cockett also addressed the national search for a new head coach for the football program, which was conducted by an independent firm in collaboration with USU Athletics. Her role in the search process did not include screening applicants.

“Utah State Athletics is dedicated to fostering a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment free of any inequalities for all of our student-athletes, coaches, and staff,” said John Hartwell, vice president and director of Athletics. “The well-being of our student-athletes is our top priority. We are committed to giving our student-athletes opportunities to express themselves so we can continue to have open dialogue and find ways to better their experience, our community, and Utah State University.”

Hartwell added that USU student-athletes are encouraged to share their concerns with USU Athletics and can do so anonymously through Real Response, an online reporting form.

USU Athletics created a Diversity and Inclusion Council in summer 2020. The current university administration also funded the creation of a new history class that launched in fall 2020 and explores the “Untold Truths of African Inequality in the United States” after student-athletes at USU identified the idea as a way to educate and “be a part of positive change.”

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