Former Utah higher ed commissioner was under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct when he resigned

Utah State University launched an inquiry into Dave Woolstenhulme after an employee reported him in March 2023.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme is seen in this photo from August 23, 2017.

At the time of his abrupt resignation last fall, the commissioner who had been overseeing higher education for Utah was under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct.

Dave Woolstenhulme left his post in September, saying he planned “to pursue other opportunities that have become available.” The Utah Board of Higher Education hastily met to approve his departure, repeating the same reason.

But, according to a document obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a public records request, an investigation into Woolstenhulme began in March 2023 after a Utah State University employee accused the commissioner of sexual misconduct.

It appears at least one additional employee came forward after that to also report a sexual harassment allegation against Woolstenhulme. The document refers to “employees,” in the plural, and a state attorney representing USU also confirmed the public school received multiple “complaints filed by university employees” during a public hearing. The school has declined to say exactly how many.

The document notes that reports of misconduct were received by the school’s Office of Equity between March and September, when Woolstenhulme resigned.

In his role, Woolstenhulme held the highest ranking position in higher education in the state. He oversaw hundreds of thousands of students and employees across eight public colleges and universities and eight technical colleges. He held the position for four years, starting in 2019 as the interim commissioner before formally taking over the post a year later.

He also previously worked at USU — and he applied to lead the school after former President Noelle Cockett stepped down. Woolstenhulme was not among the finalists for that position, later filled by Elizabeth Cantwell.

When reached by The Tribune for comment Thursday, Woolstenhulme initially declined to speak. He later called back and said: “I deny any wrongdoing whatsoever.”

The state higher education board, which governs the Utah System of Higher Education alongside the commissioner, had been informed when the inquiry was first opened by Utah State University in Logan.

“USU also notified the Utah System of Higher Education of this report at the time it was received,” according to the document.

The document was obtained by The Tribune from USU and is the final letter closing the school’s Title IX investigation into the former commissioner. Title IX is a federal law that sets out a process for reporting sexual harassment or assault.

Several lines of the letter are redacted, which the school said is to protect the identity of the complainants.

“With the redacted letter provided … the university seeks to provide some transparency around our process while protecting the confidentiality of those who share information,” said USU spokesperson Amanda DeRito in a comment to The Tribune on Thursday. “This privacy is essential to both ensure claimants feel comfortable coming forward to report and to protect the integrity of the process.”

The Tribune has been trying to obtain documents and confirmation of the investigation — from both USU and the Utah System of Higher Education — since late August, shortly before the commissioner resigned.

An initial request to USU for the original complaints and communications about the alleged misconduct was denied, with the school again citing privacy concerns for the complainants. But The Tribune later requested and received the concluding letter in the university’s investigation.

The Utah System of Higher Education similarly denied several requests from The Tribune, which the paper has appealed.

The Utah State Records Committee determined in March that the system needed to release its draft findings — dated Aug. 28 — that came from a separate internal investigation that USHE conducted apart from the USU inquiry about Woolstenhulme’s behavior.

The system had said it terminated the investigation when Woolstenhulme resigned on Sept. 11 — three days before he was required to respond to the draft findings — so the findings were never finalized in a formal report outside of the draft. USHE has continued to decline to provide the document, which it was ordered by the committee to hand over on May 1, and is now appealing to court.

The initial legal filing from the system, though, also confirms: “Prior to Mr. Woolstenhulme’s resignation, the board received complaints relating to Mr. Woolstenhulme.”

The system had previously declined to confirm any investigation, saying: “It is the Utah Board of Higher Education’s policy to not comment on personnel matters.”

It is unclear what either the USHE investigation — because it has been withheld — or the USU investigation found in regard to the employees’ allegations.

USU’s report says: “That investigation revealed no issues that were either systemically or programmatically related to USU.”

But if the letter indicates anything about the findings specific to the complaints or Woolstenhulme’s conduct, that is redacted. The university also declined to provide additional comment when asked about a resolution.

The investigation at the northern Utah school was done by attorneys at the law firm Husch Blackwell who say the aim was to take “appropriate steps reasonably calculated to stop harassment and prevent the recurrence of harassment.”

The letter — dated Jan. 18 — also notes the original complainant who came forward did not want a formal investigation, so the school instead did what it calls a less formal “inquiry” into the allegations.

The letter notes that while “USU did not have control over the former commissioner,” it was concerned that Woolstenhulme “regularly interacted with members of the university community and participated in university programs and activities” in his role.

The attorneys say they talked to Woolstenhulme, as well as several witnesses of the alleged misconduct.

Before he was commissioner of higher education, Woolstenhulme led Utah’s technical colleges from 2016 to 2018. The technical and traditional education systems in the state were later combined into one, which he oversaw.

His 2022 salary was $389,000, according to Utah’s government salary transparency website.

Prior to that, Woolstenhulme was the vice president of statewide campuses for Utah State University. He also previously led the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College and taught at the Uintah Basin campus in eastern Utah for Utah State University.

The Tribune requested and received Woolstenhulme’s resignation letter that he sent to Utah Board of Higher Education Chair Amanda Covington — which the Utah State Records Committee also ordered be released.

The letter is short, and Woolstenhulme does not mention the allegations or the investigations. He says his decision came “after much thought.”

He added: “I have enjoyed working with key legislators, the governor’s office and others to advance higher education in Utah. I will finish projects and use my annual leave days until October 31, 2023.”

It is unclear if he stayed on payroll for that additional month and a half. The higher education board met on Sept. 13 to approve Woolstenhulme’s resignation and said it was “effective immediately.” The board has the authority to hire and fire commissioners.

Woolstenhulme was not present at that board meeting. And the meeting was also quickly pulled together — announced 29 minutes before the discussion began.

Under Utah law, a public body is supposed to give notice at least 24 hours in advance of a meeting. The meeting over Woolstenhulme was not previously scheduled and, because of the short notice, was labeled and excepted as an “emergency” session.

Board members talked for an hour in a private discussion before opening the meeting again and thanking Woolstenhulme for his service.

They then announced that Geoff Landward would take over in the interim. Landward has since been named permanently to the post as commissioner.

Prior to that meeting, there was no public discussion by the board about Woolstenhulme’s performance. But his departure came during some upheaval within higher education in the state.

Former USU President Cockett stepped down in July after earlier announcing she would leave the school. Records obtained by The Tribune through a public records request then showed the members of the Board of Higher Education at the time were pushing for her resignation as concerns mounted about how sex assault cases were being handled at the school.

She announced her resignation before USU began investigating the allegations against Woolstenhulme.