Incoming Utah State leaders come from Arizona university in upheaval after on-campus murder

Utah State’s new president and police chief are leaving the University of Arizona less than a year after a professor was fatally shot on campus.

(Kim Raff | Tribune file photo) Old Main on the campus of Utah State University in Logan.

Logan • In the coming weeks and months, Utah State University will soon have two new campus leaders arriving from southern Arizona.

Those leaders — incoming USU Police Chief Jason Brei and newly-named USU president Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell — will soon be in Logan after stints at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson.

Brei will soon be the third permanent police chief at USU since late 2021. Cantwell will become the 17th president of USU, taking over for the outgoing President Noelle Cockett, who announced in November she would be stepping down.

The memories of USU’s issues with campus safety and investigating sexual assaults on campus are still lingering in Logan, as is the 2020 settlement with the Department of Justice over mishandling sexual violence on campus.

But in the past year, UA has had its own reckoning with campus safety following the on-campus killing of a beloved professor, allegedly at the hands of an expelled student who repeatedly threatened faculty.

Investigations later revealed numerous shortcomings within UA’s campus safety structure. The killing prompted the university to overhaul its campus safety departments and led to the resignations of senior administrators.

Cantwell told The Salt Lake Tribune in an email that her job at UA does not put her front and center of campus safety issues, but she is cognizant of the role a president plays in campus safety.

“Preventing violence in our campus community requires a collaborative approach, and I am looking forward to meeting those involved in safety at USU, as well as better understanding the university’s policies, procedures and practices when it comes to security and crime prevention on campus,” Cantwell said in an email.

When reached via email, Brei said he is looking forward to getting on campus and working with USU police, but he told The Tribune he was not able to discuss the past campus safety issues at UA.

“Due to sensitivity and limitations of pending litigation, many aspects regarding the matter at the U of A I am not at liberty to discuss,” Brei said in an email.

An on-campus killing

On Oct. 5, Thomas Meixner, a professor in UA’s Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences Department, was shot in a building on campus and died at the hospital. A former graduate student who had been expelled and barred from the school has been charged with the murder.

Following Meixner’s death, Cantwell expressed her sadness in a university news release.

“Tom Meixner was such an impactful and enthusiastic scholar,” Cantwell said. “He was prodigious, incredibly well respected, truly giving of his time and ideas — especially to his students — and just emblematic of what the community of scholars at the University of Arizona seek to do: change the world. I cannot express how much he will be missed by our entire research community.”

UA hired an outside security company, PAX Group, to investigate the events leading to Meixner’s death.

That company issued a report, released in March, that found numerous shortcomings in UA’s leadership and its campus security. The investigation found the suspect threatened multiple faculty members prior to the killing.

The fallout led to UAPD Chief Paula Balafas and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Liesl Folks stepping down from their positions in May. The university’s president, Robert Robbins, remained in his position, despite UA’s faculty senate passing a vote of no confidence on March 27 against Robbins and other members of the university’s leadership.

In March, Meixner’s family filed a notice of claim — typically a precursor to a lawsuit — against the state seeking $9 million in damages, according to KOLD, a Tucson TV station. As of now, a lawsuit has not been filed in Arizona’s state or federal courts regarding Meixner’s death.

Threat Assessment Management Team and UA police

The investigation partially focused on the UA police department and the Threat Assessment and Management Team, or TAMT, a group made up of different law enforcement and university staff that, “works to determine if an individual poses or could potentially pose a threat of violence to others,” according to its website.

In an email, a spokesperson for UA’s Office of Public Safety said Brei started as UAPD’s assistant chief in May 2016 and as a member of the TAMT since 2018.

The investigation found the TAMT was not running efficiently, and the team’s protocols “led to a series of decisions and actions that presented multiple opportunities for [the suspect] to harass and threaten University of Arizona community members.”

The report also said that TAMT members raised concerns in 2018 about a lack of support from university leadership. TAMT met with university leaders that same year. In 2021, they raised the issue again with leadership, expressing they still had not resolved the issues presented in 2018. The PAX report says a TAMT member told university leadership, “it has taken years to get to this moment and none of us seem to know why.”

University offices were unclear on what type of information could be shared about threats to UA staff, the report found, which “chilled information sharing.”

Among the recommendations outlined in the report, the PAX Group suggested UA overhaul TAMT and formalize its policies, in addition to hiring a TAMT coordinator that was not directly attached to the police department or the UA Office of General Counsel.

“In relation to the of October 5, 2022, TAMT was not operating in an effective manner, which prevented the University from accurately assessing, managing, and coordinating action to mitigate a real and present threat,” the report says.

The PAX report says university police and TAMT had three opportunities to potentially “intervene” and arrest the suspect before the murder. He was spotted on campus and sent threatening emails to Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences faculty — all after he was expelled in February 2022 and barred from campus.

The third opportunity was when the student walked into the university police station just days before the killing and asked them to run the license plate on his new vehicle to, “see what came up,” the report says. “The University’s culture of moving from incident to incident, without improving the process to create a clear threat management and investigative strategy, led to missed opportunities for mitigation and intervention.”

Utah State’s campus safety

While UA has made changes to its on-campus safety since the Meixner shooting, some of the changes made at UA are things USU already has in place, like having a Department of Public Safety.

The PAX report outlined how different branches of UA were not properly communicating, which led to gaps in its security and response to threats.

Improving campus communication was also a big takeaway from the DOJ investigation at Utah State, according to Amanda DeRito, a spokesperson for USU.

“So some of the things we saw in the past were people not collaborating as much, info sharing, things like that,” DeRito told The Tribune. “That is outlined in both the report we did in 2017 after looking at our internal processes, and also the DOJ’s report.”

DeRito said the university is obviously very careful with student privacy, but she said there are clear exclusions to the law that governs student privacy, particularly with public safety, that members of campus need to know about.

“We’re very attuned to that, and our campus offices regularly share information if there are safety concerns,” she said.

USU also has a program where students, staff and faculty can submit a “Student of Concern” report if someone is exhibiting worrisome behavior. Those reports are reviewed by the USU CARE Office, which stands for “Connect, Assist, Refer, Empower.”

DeRito said the CARE Office can help students in different ways. For example, if a student has missed several days of classes, the CARE Office can reach out and provide resources if needed. If a student is sick and has missed class, the CARE Office can help. The office can also help the student with mental health resources if that’s what is needed, DeRito said.

If a student is determined to potentially be a risk to themselves or others, DeRito said the university’s Behavioral Intervention Team will step in to help.

New leaders

Brei is set to become the third official police chief at USU since December 2021.

That December, then-police chief and Director of Public Safety Earl Morris resigned from his posts just a day after the university put him on administrative leave. A recording revealed comments Morris made to members of the Aggie football team regarding sexual assault, which USU described as “reprehensible and unacceptable.”

Morris was replaced by Blair Barfuss as chief in July 2022, but Barfuss left USU less than a year into his tenure. USU said in a news release Barfuss would leave on Feb. 17, “due to recent family health issues.” On Feb. 21 — four days after he left Logan — he started as chief of the Riverton Police Department.

The university announced on May 11 that Brei would lead the police department. Cantwell was chosen by the Utah Board of Higher Education to lead the university just over a week later. Brei is set to start July 1, and Cantwell will start Aug. 1.

Correction, July 5, 8:45 a.m. • This story has been updated to correct the spelling of USU spokesperson Amanda DiRito.

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