Utah’s higher ed boss was accused of sexual misconduct. Officials sued The Tribune to keep investigation secret.

The state records committee ruled that a draft investigative report sought by The Salt Lake Tribune should be public — but the Utah Board of Higher Education is appealing to court.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Woolstenhulme is seen in this photo from August 23, 2017. He resigned amid a 2023 examination into his conduct, which ended the investigation.

Trying to keep an investigative report secret, the Utah Board of Higher Education has filed a lawsuit arguing it should not have to release the draft account of how it addressed sexual harassment complaints made against the commissioner who was then overseeing the state’s colleges and universities.

The board sued Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner and Utah’s State Records Committee earlier this month, arguing that it should not have to disclose the report because it was the “product of an incomplete grievance process.” Tanner requested the report and other records of any investigation into Dave Woolstenhulme after the former commissioner abruptly resigned last September.

The state records committee ruled the draft report should be released, a decision that the board is asking a district court judge to reverse.

When Woolstenhulme left the job, he said he planned “to pursue other opportunities that have become available.” The Utah Board of Higher Education repeated the same reason after members hastily met to approve his departure.

But the board’s lawsuit says Woolstenhulme resigned two weeks after he received a draft investigative report concerning “complaints” made about him — and his decision to leave ultimately ended the investigation against him, while it was still in the middle of the processes the board follows after receiving complaints.

A record which was released to The Salt Lake Tribune said the 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 Utah State University also confirmed during a public hearing that the public school received multiple “complaints filed by university employees.” The school has declined to say exactly how many.

Tanner sought the draft investigative report, among other records, in a public records request. The State Records Committee earlier this year ruled that the public interest in releasing the draft outweighed privacy concerns — and ordered its release. However, it also ruled that the original complaints made against Woolstenhulme would not be made public.

The Board of Higher Education’s lawsuit appeals the records committee’s decision about the draft investigative report. The board said in the lawsuit that if it were forced to disclose the draft it would undermine the steps in place for due process, and could disincentivize others from coming forward with similar complaints if they fear they cannot rely on the confidentiality the board offered them.

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 the post a year later.

Mike Judd, an attorney with Parsons Behle & Latimer who is working in The Tribune’s defense, said the Utah Board of Education’s business is the public’s business — and the law says the board should provide Utahns with easy and reasonable access to records related to that business.

“The public has a significant interest in how our colleges and universities are run,” he said. “And when the system’s commissioner resigns suddenly, the public has a right to understand why.”

“After hearing the board’s arguments against disclosure, the State Records Committee — Utah’s record-access specialists — found that the board is improperly withholding the Woolstenhulme investigation,” he continued. “The Tribune agrees, and it will continue to press for the release of records like these, whether that’s before the committee or in court.”

A spokesperson for the Utah Board of Education declined to comment for this story, saying it does not speak publicly about issues under judicial review.

In the lawsuit, the board detailed the process it follows when complaints like those made against Woolstenhulme are filed: It hires an outside investigator to examine those complaints, who then makes a draft investigative report.

But before a final report can be issued, the lawsuit says that everyone involved must be given the draft investigative report, and be given the opportunity to submit any additional evidence. And after the final investigative report is issued, there’s supposed to be a closed-door hearing where a committee will make a final decision on whether any policies were violated, and whether to order any sanctions.

In Woolstenhulme’s case, the outside investigator did draft the investigative report, according to the lawsuit, and the commissioner was given until Sept. 14 to provide any additional evidence. He resigned on Sept. 11.

“The Board accepted Mr. Woolstenhulme’s resignation,” the lawsuit reads. “At that time, the complaints were dismissed and the investigation process was terminated as per the [Utah Board of Education] policies.”

Woolstenhulme never responded to the draft investigative report, according to the lawsuit. He told a Tribune reporter last week that, “I deny any wrongdoing whatsoever.”

The board noted in its lawsuit that because Woolstenhulme resigned, there was never a final investigative report, there was no hearing, and no determination made into whether Woolstenhulme violated any policies. Therefore, they argued, releasing the report would be releasing a product of a process that was never completed.

Along with undermining the trust of those who file complaints, the board argued in its lawsuit that releasing the draft report would also disincentivize those who are accused of wrongdoing from participating in an investigation if they know that any information “could be disclosed to the public at any point in the process regardless of whether the process has reached its conclusion or a final finding is made.”

If the report were released, the board argued to a district court judge, it would hinder its ability to “effectively uncover and appropriately address misconduct” if those who have information don’t trust and participate in the process.