A rarely used Utah policy will allow Utah State University’s president to continue earning full admin salary after resigning

Cockett signed a voluntary resignation agreement that grants her a “transition year” in USU’s faculty.

After she steps down as president of Utah State University in July, Noelle Cockett will continue to make her full presidential salary for another year.

Cockett, who announced her impending departure last month with a cloud of controversy hanging around the school’s football program, signed a voluntary resignation agreement with the Utah System of Higher Education, which is responsible for hiring and firing public university presidents in the state. According to that contract, which The Salt Lake Tribune obtained through a public records request, Cockett will return to a faculty position at the school while still earning her administrator pay for the “transition year.”

That will be set at more than half a million dollars — $540,224, exactly — the contract notes.

The negotiated amount will include a $30,000 pay increase that Cockett would have been granted if she were staying on as president.

A spokesperson for USU declined to comment on the agreement, referring questions to the Utah System of Higher Education.

Geoff Landward, deputy commissioner for the system, said the unique type of agreement is available for any university president in Utah who serves for three years before stepping down and returning to being a faculty member of the university.

It’s a longstanding state policy that was last updated in 2004. It’s meant to encourage more applicants in the faculty to apply for president, knowing they can return to their positions and areas of expertise again after serving as an administrator.

Most university presidents in Utah, Landward said, stay in the job for six to seven years, though there has been more turnover lately and the policy hasn’t been used in recent years. And it doesn’t come into play if a university president leaves the job to accept a position elsewhere. For instance, Ruth Watkins didn’t get a similar deal when she left the helm of the University of Utah to go to Strada Impact in 2021.

But the high pay raises questions about job expectations for the “transition year” for Cockett, whose departure comes amid controversy.

Cockett’s tenure leading USU has been marked by several high-profile sexual assault allegations that came both before her leadership and continued during it, ultimately prompting a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Within the last year, there has been new scrutiny of how the Logan school is handling reports of assaults and allegations of a toxic culture within its football program. That’s included recordings of staff making derogatory comments about sexual assault victims to players during a meeting. The audio prompted the then-police chief to resign. The coach has apologized and remained.

Cockett’s announcement also came shortly after the resignation of USU Athletic Director John Hartwell, who apologized last 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.

Landward said there are no specific requirements for Cockett in returning to a faculty position.

In fact, he said, the year of “transition” where she will be paid a president’s salary is “essentially a paid sabbatical.”

There are no expectations for how many classes she will teach at USU in the first year. And there isn’t a set number of articles she must publish with her research, which most professors have.

“[Presidents] aren’t ready to just start teaching and researching immediately,” Landward said.

The time is used instead to “prepare to reenter the faculty position.”

The resignation agreement says that Cockett requested to return to her faculty position, where she was a tenured professor, among other positions, before she became president (though she also continued to teach then). Her specialty is veterinary science, with a focus on sheep genomics.

After the transition year, the school is tasked with setting a new compensation rate “consistent with Utah State University’s compensation practices and aligned with the compensation range for faculty in the relevant department.”

If she takes another job during that first year, the agreement says, the presidential pay will conclude at that time.

The remainder of the seven-page signed resignation agreement reads like a legal settlement.

In exchange for the compensation, Cockett promises to drop any claims she may have against the school, USU’s trustees or the state board of higher education. She also agrees not to disparage the university and not to share any confidential information she learned as president.

It’s nearly identical language to the settlement that USU student Kaytriauna Flint signed when she accepted a $500,000 payout by the school in early October — about two months before Cockett announced her resignation — to drop her lawsuit that said the school failed to properly handle her allegations that she’d been raped by a football player.

The resignation agreement was signed by Cockett on Nov. 21, one day before announcing she was stepping down. But it says she had 21 days to review it, which means the agreement was likely first broached shortly after Patrick Maddox filed suit against the university on Oct. 28.

Maddox, a friend of Flint’s, was a USU football player. He is suing the school for retaliation after he says he faced threats so intense he felt forced to quit the team in response to his sharing of the recordings of the head coach and campus police chief commenting about sex assault victims.

That new case brought renewed negative attention to the school.

The Utah Board of Higher Education announced earlier this month that it has hired a national firm to help look for a new USU president, likely focusing on finding someone who can course-correct the university out of news headlines.

“The Utah Board of Higher Education intends to conduct a vigorous search for the best talent available,” said Lisa Michele Church, chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education, in a statement. “Our goal is to name an inclusive leader who is dedicated to the success of USU students, faculty and staff.”

The board intends to have a new president in place by summer 2023, aligning with the timeline for Cockett to step down.