Emails suggest Noelle Cockett faced pressure to resign as president of Utah State University

The board that oversees public university presidents in Utah expressed concerns about Cockett’s handling of several high-profile cases, largely centered around sexual assault and harassment.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former USU President Noelle Cockett speaks at a press conference in Logan on Friday, April 6, 2018. Higher education board members brought up several concerns about her leadership, according to newly released, before Cockett announced on Nov. 22, 2022 that she would be resigning.

Newly released emails suggest Noelle Cockett faced pressure to resign as president of Utah State University as the school once again became mired in allegations last fall that it was mishandling cases of sex assault.

The Salt Lake Tribune obtained several messages in a records request to the Utah Board of Higher Education, which oversees public universities in Utah. Behind the scenes and behind closed doors, these records show for the first time that board members were questioning Cockett’s leadership in the weeks before she announced her departure.

That included members asking about the job Cockett was doing to guide the university shortly after a lawsuit was filed in October by a football player who said he faced retaliation for whistleblowing about the team’s head coach and its then-campus police chief making derogatory comments about sex assault victims. The recordings he made were used as evidence about the attitudes on campus in an earlier lawsuit against the school, filed by a female student who said she was raped by another member of the team in 2019.

Cockett acknowledged how that latest lawsuit might make the university look, writing in an email to Julie Beck, then a member of the board. Cockett said she knew there were concerns piling up at that point, with multiple stories published about the school in a two-week span — including some that drew national attention.

“I understand that some of the USHE Board members have raised questions about the recent news articles on sexual assault at USU,” Cockett said in a Nov. 8 email, about a week after the new lawsuit was filed. But she couched the case as being “centered” around the allegations that “occurred in 2019” — although the recordings were made in 2021.

Cockett, who had become president in 2017, then defended her response to the situation and blamed “sensational” coverage by media outlets.

“Please know I have been diligent and committed in improving all aspects of USU’s training, reporting, resources, policies and procedures on this critical issue,” Cockett wrote. “Unfortunately, the media does not care about improvements — only sensational stories that USU has chosen not to litigate or debate in the media.”

The following day, the then-chair of the higher education board, Lisa Michele Church, called for a closed session to be held on Nov. 10 for members “to discuss President Cockett.” Under Utah law, a government board can meet privately to talk about personnel issues.

Church had also scheduled a one-on-one chat with Cockett for later that day.

And less than two weeks later, on Nov. 22, Cockett announced her departure from the school, signing a voluntary agreement to leave; her last day was June 30. She will stay at the school as a faculty member but continue to receive her full presidential salary for another year.

The Tribune has been working for months to obtain records about what was communicated to and by Cockett around her resignation, with her term as president clouded by ongoing allegations of misconduct, harassment and assault not being taken seriously by the Logan school.

In November, after the announcement of Cockett’s resignation, The Tribune filed a public records request for emails sent by higher education board members around the president’s departure; the board oversees the hiring and firing of university leaders. The Utah System of Higher Education initially denied that request, saying the communications should be kept private.

The Tribune challenged that and was ultimately granted access, eight months later, after winning an appeal before the Utah State Records Committee. It received several email exchanges sent by board members about Cockett and the string of accusations that kept her name and USU in the spotlight.

Spokespersons for both USU and the Utah System of Higher Education — which has seen its board overhauled by the governor after recent legislation — declined to comment about the released emails for this story.

‘Disturbing’ video surfaces

The football player’s lawsuit was not the only concern that board members were weighing November.

On Nov. 2, Cockett sent an email to then-board chair Church with the subject line “Heads Up on Forthcoming News Article” about a story she said was coming out soon about then-Athletic Director John Hartwell and vulgar comments he’d made.

Cockett had allowed Hartwell to quietly resign the day before, with a statement about how he needed to spend more time with his family. But the emails show the president knew at that point the real reason for his departure.

“The SL Tribune reporter has asked USU for a quote on the Grama-ed letter and AD John Hartwell’s statement about his video,” Cockett wrote to Church. (GRAMA is short for Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act, or the statute outlining access to public records.)

The Tribune had earlier requested two letters sent last fall to the university by people concerned about Hartwell’s behavior. They pointed to a video of Hartwell that had been briefly posted online in December 2020 before it was quickly removed and with no confirmation of who recorded it.

Hartwell verified its authenticity with a statement once the letters were released, hours after he stepped down.

In the video, Hartwell is talking on the phone while away at a hotel for a 2019 bowl game for the school. He is laughing as he says: “Get your d--- out of that boy’s a--.” The brief recording does not include anything that was said before or after that.

Hartwell said in a statement that he was repeating part of a joke and he apologized. He said he learned the video existed in 2020 and talked to Cockett about it then. Hartwell said that Cockett told him “there wasn’t anything on that video that concerned her and to not worry about it.”

USU was again alerted to the conduct and concerns about how it was allegedly swept under the rug by two letters about it.

The first, dated Aug. 1, 2022, came from an anonymous group who wrote a letter signed “concerned Aggies.” That letter listed several issues within athletes at the school, including Hartwell’s remarks.

In a second released letter, Green Bay Packer Dallin Leavitt — a former USU football player — wrote to Cockett directly in October, citing the Hartwell video among reasons he was “beyond ashamed” of the school’s program.

It appears the Board of Higher Education, or at least some members, knew about the “concerned Aggies” letter, based on the timing of messages. Scott Theurer, a board member, responded to an email on Aug. 16, 2022 — one of the earliest provided to The Tribune — about having his own personal meeting with Cockett, along with another board member, Jesselie Anderson.

Church thanked him for holding that meeting related to Cockett’s performance and called it “very, very helpful.”

She then said she understood that Theurer had updated Kent Alder, who was then serving as the chair of USU’s board of trustees, about the situation. “I hope we can stay in close contact with the Board of Trustees as this progresses, so thanks,” Church said.

Theurer later served on the committee to find a new president to replace Cockett; Elizabeth Cantwell now leads the university.

There are no more messages in that chain. It’s unclear if there were further discussions on the letters or the concerns about Hartwell that they raised.

The next communication on Hartwell’s conduct — and Cockett’s reaction to it — came on Nov. 3, the day The Tribune ran its story on Hartwell’s derogatory remarks. Utah System of Higher Education Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme responded to the news with an email on Nov. 3 to several board members. He called Hartwell’s behavior “very disturbing.”

The following day Church sent an email to Cockett asking for an afternoon meeting in a “private place” on Nov. 10.

Cockett responded to Church to confirm the meeting and also share “some great things that happened at USU this week” to counter the negative news. Cockett sent another email on Nov. 8 to Church, forwarding a positive message an individual had sent her about her work on diversity efforts at USU.

An ‘URGENT’ meeting

Church called for a closed session board meeting to be held on Nov. 10, in the morning, before her scheduled meeting with Cockett. The email to board members to set that up was labeled “URGENT.”

In the thread on that, another board member raised a third concern about Cockett.

Grace Acosta said she was contacted by Jacey Skinner, who was then a member of USU’s board of trustees and is now its chair. Acosta wrote that because Skinner “reached out, I suspect it is highly important.”

Acosta said in an email on Nov. 9 that Skinner was worried about “the event identified in the attached news article.”

The link Acosta then shared was about a 2020 investigation into Cockett concerning whether the president made discriminatory remarks about USU’s then-interim head football coach Frank Maile.

Cockett allegedly made the remarks during a Dec. 8, 2020, meeting the football team’s leadership council called with her and Hartwell to advocate hiring Maile as the head coach. Players said during that discussion Cockett cited concerns about Maile’s cultural and religious background and negative impacts that could have on the future of the team.

Maile, a former USU player, is a Pacific Islander and an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints.

Later that week, the players unanimously voted to forfeit their final game of the season in protest. Cockett said in a statement that she was “devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background.”

Maile called for an investigation into the matter; the Utah Board of Higher Education authorized an independent review on Dec. 15, 2020 — one day after USU announced that Blake Anderson, the former coach at Arkansas State, would be the Aggies’ next head coach.

The investigation cleared Cockett and Hartwell of any bias in the decision to hire Anderson instead of Maile and Cockett of any prejudice toward Maile. Maile has since accepted a job at Boise State as an associate head coach and defensive line coach.

But the email exchange suggests that concerns about Cockett’s conduct lingered among higher education leaders.

Allegations piled up

In her email on Nov. 8 defending her work and acknowledging the board’s concern, Cockett said she has been upset that the media, referring specifically to The Tribune, has repeatedly “provided ‘reminders’ of sexual assault cases that happened prior to my time as president but required me to handle after I started in 2017.”

Cockett did start her term by wrapping up a series of assault cases that happened in 2015 and 2016 — but she was also an executive vice president and provost during that time, which previous articles from The Tribune have noted. And in those previous positions, she was chair of a task force to improve how assaults were being handled, giving her a role in the university’s responses from 2016 forward.

Her first few months in office as president included signing a $250,000 settlement to end a lawsuit from former USU student Victoria Hewlett.

Hewlett had 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. Relopez was sentenced to a year in jail; the school initially denied he was on administrators’ radar.

As president, Cockett also dealt with the fallout from multiple students reporting in 2015 that football player Torrey Green had raped them; some later said the school knew about allegations but didn’t take sufficient steps to stop Green. USU has acknowledged its response was “siloed” across multiple departments. Green has since been sentenced to prison.

In 2018, USU faced allegations that it failed to respond to reports of sexism and abuse from its own piano faculty. 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 led the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the school. 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.”

Then in 2021, student Kaytriauna Flint came forward with her allegations that she was raped by a football player in 2019 and got no help from the school in the aftermath — despite the Department of Justice’s findings.

Her lawsuit referred to the comments that another player, Patrick Maddox, had recorded of coach Blake Anderson and then-police chief Earl Morris making during a football team meeting in August 2021. Anderson apologized. Morris resigned a few days after the recordings were published.

Maddox later filed suit, saying he faced intense retaliation for making and sharing the audio. Both Flint and Maddox have since settled their lawsuits with the school.

Maddox’s lawsuit prompted Cockett to respond to the concerns of higher education board members in an email dated Nov. 8.

“I have taken several personnel actions that demonstrate zero tolerance for sexual assault,” she wrote, “but these actions are not widely shared and certainly not with the media.”

The board member she sent that to, Julie Beck, wrote back later that same day: “Thank you for your email. I don’t have any questions for you at this time.”

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