Utah State University President Noelle Cockett announced Tuesday that she is resigning — a surprise departure even as the Logan school has faced ongoing scrutiny about how it has handled reports of sexual assault and allegations of a toxic culture within its football program.
Cockett, who took the helm of the land-grant university in 2017, has served as the institution’s first female president. Her six-year tenure, though, has been marked by several high-profile assault allegations that came both before her leadership and continued during it, ultimately prompting a federal investigation by the Department of Justice.
Her administration has stood by what it’s done to improve the environment for victims. But it’s led some to question her leadership — especially with the recent attention on the school with a lawsuit alleging retaliation against a player who spoke out about the misconduct.
The chair of the USU’s board of trustees, Kent Alder, also did not answer calls Monday night. When reached by The Salt Lake Tribune last week and asked if the board had frustrations with Cockett, Alder said: “There’s nothing real serious.”
A spokesperson for the school declined to comment on whether Cockett had been asked to resign. The Utah Board of Higher Education is responsible for hiring and firing public university presidents; the spokesperson there told The Tribune that she did not have any information. But the board met earlier this month in a closed session to discuss a personnel concern.
Cockett — who has an annual salary of $452,016 before benefits — becomes the third high-ranking administrator to resign from USU in less than a year, in the fallout from continuing concerns around the football team.
Her announcement comes shortly after the resignation of USU Athletic Director John Hartwell, who apologized earlier this month for a video that showed him repeating part of a vulgar joke while he was away at a bowl game for the school in 2019.
Hartwell claimed that when he saw the recording had later been posted online, he showed it to Cockett. He said she told him “there wasn’t anything on that video that concerned her and to not worry about it.”
That conduct was brought to light this year through two letters, one signed by an anonymous group of “concerned Aggies” and the other from Green Bay Packer Dallin Leavitt, a former USU football player.
Those letters, obtained through a public records request by The Tribune, also mentioned other issues with the football team, including recordings of staff making derogatory comments about sexual assault victims to players during a meeting. That prompted the then-police chief to resign last year. The coach has apologized and remained.
In the announcement from the school, Cockett gave no reason for her resignation.
In a letter to faculty Tuesday, she wrote: “The decades I have been at USU have convinced me that all of our amazing institutional accomplishments have been possible because of the hard work and commitment of each one of you and those who preceded you as university faculty, staff and supporters.”
Assault reports and a federal investigation
Cockett will continue as president until July 1, when she will return to the faculty. A spokesperson said USU didn’t immediately know what her salary would be in that position.
She has signed a “reorientation agreement” with the Utah Board of Higher Education to remain as president while the board searches for her replacement, according to a spokesperson there. She has also agreed to be a tenured professor for 12 months, which can include teaching or researching. The Tribune has requested a copy of that agreement.
With her exit, the board will be tasked with finding a new leader to oversee USU’s multiple campuses across the state, including satellites in Moab and Blanding, with 28,000 students total.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is a USU alumnus, as is the commissioner over higher education in the state. The president of USU before Cockett, Stan Albrecht, sits on the state’s higher education board.
Lisa Michele Church, chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education, thanked Cockett for her “years of valuable service” in a statement Tuesday. Alder, the chair of USU’s board of trustees, called her “a tremendous leader.”
The process of searching for and selecting a university president typically takes nine months to a year. And it will likely focus on finding someone who can course-correct USU out of news headlines.
The school had been rocked by a series of sexual assault reports under Albrecht, who retired in 2016, prior to Cockett becoming president.
That started with multiple students reporting in 2015 that football player Torrey Green had raped them; they later said the school knew about their similar allegations but didn’t take steps to stop Green. USU has acknowledged its response was “siloed” across multiple departments.
The northern Utah school was also at the center of concerns with assaults at its fraternities. Former USU student Victoria Hewlett sued the school for allegedly mishandling sexual assault allegations from her and multiple other women involving then-Sigma Chi fraternity member Jason Relopez around 2015, as well. Relopez was sentenced to a year in jail; the school initially denied he was on administrators’ radar.
At that time, Cockett, who was an executive vice president at the school, served as the chair of a task force to improve how assaults are handled. She continued to hold that position into her presidency, while the cases lingered.
Early in her term, her administration came to a settlement agreement with Hewlett in her case. The school agreed to pay her $250,000 and increase oversight of its Greek system. And the president co-authored a letter with the student, describing how the school would improve moving forward.
“Nothing can wipe away the pain and trauma that survivors of sexual violence endure and live with every day,” the opinion column said. “But working through that trauma together can lead to reforms that prevent such painful history from repeating itself over and over again.”
Concerns continued, though.
USU faced allegations in 2018 that it failed to respond to reports of sexism and abuse from its own piano faculty. A student alleging in a Facebook post that she had been raped prompted the school to investigate. An investigator hired by USU found students had endured a “pervasive culture” of sexism, a “disturbing” pattern of sexual violence and psychological abuse by faculty.
At the time, Cockett said: “Step one in moving forward is standing up and admitting that we at Utah State made mistakes in the way we handled issues of abuse, of mistreatment of students and even of instances of sexual assault.”
The slate of cases, though, led the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the school and how it responded to sexual assaults. In early 2020, federal investigators released their findings — chastising the school for mistreating victims, failing to investigate when it knew of misconduct and rendering “additional students vulnerable.”
Cockett said the school would promptly respond to accusations moving forward and repeated that USU “should have done better.”
USU agreed to a settlement with the DOJ, saying it had already begun to make some of the changes but would agree primarily to correcting the gaps in its response to victims.
Federal monitoring of that continues through the end of this school year, in spring 2023, with semiannual reports submitted by Utah State listing each report of assault and the university’s response. The school is also expected to watch for repeat offenders and train all incoming students and staff on harassment and consent.
A spokesperson for the DOJ told The Tribune that the new allegations that have come out this past year against USU and its football program have led the department to more “vigilantly monitor all aspects of USU’s compliance with the Title IX settlement agreement.”
The spokesperson would not say whether investigators have found any violations. If USU shows any lapses, the DOJ can step in and take legal action.
New concerns around football program
Last month, Patrick Maddox, a former football player, filed suit against Utah State and coach Blake Anderson for allegedly retaliating against him.
He says he was bullied and forced off the team after he shared recordings of the coach and then-campus police chief making derogatory comments about sex assault victims during team meetings.
The recordings were originally described in a lawsuit filed in 2021 by Kaytriauna Flint, a USU student and a friend of Maddox’s who alleged she was raped by another member of the football team in 2019 and got no help from the school in the aftermath.
Her case was settled earlier this year. But Maddox said he continued to face pushback.
Coach Blake Anderson has defended himself against what he calls the “false statements” from Maddox. But Anderson has previously acknowledged making the statement in the recordings from August 2021 where he told his players it “has never been more glamorized to be a victim.” He apologized for saying that.
In a separate recording, Earl Morris, who was then the university’s police chief, also told the football players to make sure that when they have sex that it’s consensual — especially with a Latter-day Saint woman. He warned the team that LDS women will often tell their bishop, when questioned about it, that sex was nonconsensual because that’s “easier.”
Morris resigned last year, a few days after the recordings were published.
Utah State said the statements from the coach and Morris were “not consistent with the university’s trainings.” Cockett did not directly comment.
But some expressed frustration that no action was taken against Anderson.
That came up in the two letters sent by the “concerned Aggies” and Green Bay Packer Dallin Leavitt sent to Cockett this fall. The writers brought up the video about Hartwell, the athletic director, too, and urged the president to possibly discipline him, as well.
Leavitt specifically told Cockett that he is “beyond ashamed” of the current football program for the culture it has around it.
Shortly after the letters were released to The Tribune, Hartwell apologized. A spokesperson for Cockett did not deny that the president knew about the video. She said Cockett had met with Hartwell in 2020, when it was first posted online, and “addressed her concerns about his behavior and set expectations for the future.”
The letters additionally refer to the 2020 investigation into concerns of racial bias on the team.
Former interim football coach Frank Maile called for an investigation then after Cockett had reportedly said he was not considered for the head coaching job due to his religious and ethnic background. Football players boycotted the last game of the season.
Cockett and Hartwell were both later cleared of wrongdoing in that case by the Utah Board of Higher Education.
Despite her rocky legacy, Cockett’s time as president will also be recognized for what she did to expand education across Utah.
Her main push at USU was to get higher education into rural communities, including close to the Ute Indian Reservation in Vernal and Roosevelt and on the Navajo Reservation in Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek.
She often spoke with pride about how students in all corners of the state completed technical certificates, doctoral degrees and everything in between through Utah State University.
“We’re the residential campus in Logan, with all of its embodiments,” she said after she was first appointed president. “But then all through the rest of the state you can get a college degree through our system.”
That drive came from a position she held previous to becoming president — as the school’s vice president for extension, from 2006 to 2013 — which made her intimately familiar with the satellite campuses. But it was also fueled by her own experience growing up and in education.
Cockett grew up on a beef cattle ranch in eastern Montana. And she completed her K-12 education at a small parochial school.
She later went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in animal science at Montana State University, which is also a land-grant institution, like USU.
But she said she never saw herself as a Bobcat, the mascot there. “To me, ‘I’m an Aggie’ embodies an image,” Cockett said, and that’s how she described herself.
She came to USU as a researcher and assistant professor in veterinary science in 1990 — after completing a masters and doctorate at Oregon State University and a short stint at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She met her husband in Oregon, and John Cockett is currently the associate vice president of central development in university advancement at USU.
The agriculture focus of USU appealed to Cockett, she has previously said, and she has moved up the ranks there in the 32 years since, while still working as a professor even while president. Her research has focused on sheep genomics, winning her several national awards. She also saw the school become designated an R1 Carnegie university for excellence in research.
As president, that passion helped her secure the funding this spring for a four-year veterinary program at USU, securing $18 million from the Utah Legislature for the first-of-its-kind offering at a Utah college. As part of that, the school also acquired an equestrian center in Salt Lake County in a major land exchange heralded by supporters.
Cockett has additionally approved opening the new Latinx Cultural Center on campus, expanded staffing and funding for the USU Inclusion Center and created the Center for Intersectional Gender Studies and Research.
She also hired Utah State’s first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Jane Irungu, this year.
And she can be credited with expanding access to counselors on campus after shortages were leaving students waiting days or weeks to be seen. This was supported by an increase in student fees.
Cockett is the latest president to leave her post as the state’s eight institutions of higher education have seen major turnover in recent years; four of the schools — or half — will have had new leaders appointed within the last year.
Similarly facing concerns about student safety after the murder of athlete Lauren McCluskey, Ruth Watkins stepped down from her post as president of University of Utah in spring 2021. Taylor Randall is now at the helm there.
Mindy Benson was named president of Southern Utah University this year, after the departure of Scott Wyatt. And Snow College is searching for a new leader after Bradley Cook announced earlier this year that he would be leaving.