USU president Noelle Cockett, AD John Hartwell exonerated in probe of alleged discriminatory remarks

‘We conclude that the inclusivity concerns raised by Pres. Cockett were designed to promote a discussion with athletes about the degree to which they felt included and welcomed at Utah State’

Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University

An investigation has found that neither Utah State University President Noelle Cockett nor athletic director John Hartwell expressed concerns over former interim football coach Frank Maile’s religious or cultural background in a Dec. 8 meeting with Aggie players.

The investigation, released by the Utah Board of Higher Education on Friday, also concluded that Maile’s background did not disqualify him as a candidate for the head coaching job.

The investigators also concluded that the Dec. 8 meeting had two different purposes depending on the perspective. Cockett wanted to get a sense of the players’ well-being, and the players only wanted to talk about Maile and express support for him. The players’ feelings about a previous allegation of discrimination unrelated to Maile may have also played in a role in how they characterized Cockett’s comments.

“Instead, we conclude that the inclusivity concerns raised by Pres. Cockett were designed to promote a discussion with athletes about the degree to which they felt included and welcomed at Utah State,” the board’s report reads. “Unfortunately, likely due to some of the complicating factors expressed above, Pres. Cockett’s intent was not effectively communicated to or understood by the athletes, who genuinely felt that Pres. Cockett’s general concerns about inclusivity expressed or implied reservations about Coach Maile.”

Cockett allegedly made comments about Maile during a videoconference that included many players and Hartwell. The meeting was held to discuss Maile’s candidacy for the head coaching job after Gary Andersen parted ways with USU.

The players took exception to Cockett’s comments about Maile’s religious and cultural background, prompting them to unanimously vote to not play the final game of the season.

The report says that there is no recording of the videoconference and not much written record of it, forcing the investigators to “reconcile very different accounts” of the meeting.

The 16-page report details what was said during the videoconference meeting and the meeting’s aftermath. During the meeting, several players expressed their confidence in Maile, describing him as a “father figure” and saying he would commit to Utah State and not use the head coaching job as a stepping stone.

The report also said that “Hartwell would not characterize any of the comments in the meeting as raising concerns about Coach Maile’s religious or ethnic background.”

Investigators questioned 30 players about the Dec. 8 call and said they gave varying accounts of what Cockett said. Many of them, the report reads, said they remembered specific references of “Polynesian,” “Poly” or “comments regarding Coach Maile’s Polynesian heritage.”

One player said there were “implications that coach Maile’s Polynesian heritage created ‘concerns.’” Four players recalled Cockett “raising concerns about how coach Maile’s Polynesian heritage would impact his ability to recruit.”

But several players only recalled “vague references” to Polynesians. One of them, who self-identifies as Polynesian, said, “It didn’t offend me and I know she didn’t mean it that way.”

Many players also recalled references to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — either Cockett hiring coaches that were members, or Maile specifically being a member. But the interviews did not reveal any specific concerns from Cockett.

“Many student athletes recalled that Pres. Cockett at least made reference to religion, including concerns about religious homogeneity in Cache Valley and how that would impact inclusivity,” the report reads. “Most seemed to interpret her comments to refer directly or indirectly to Coach Maile. However, we could not clearly establish from the interviews whether Pres. Cockett raised specific concerns about whether Coach Maile’s religious identity would disqualify him as a coach.”

Investigators conducted two interviews with Cockett — Dec. 22 and Dec. 31. She denied saying the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day was not inclusive.

“I would never say that about members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Cockett said,” per the report. “Instead, she said ‘I talked about Cache Valley not being inclusive.’”

About possibly making the “religious diversity” remark, Cockett said that would have also been in reference to Cache Valley’s demographics, “which causes some students to struggle with feeling included and welcomed.”

Cockett did, however, seem to express concerns over Maile’s recruiting strategy, the report reads.

Cockett and Maile met on Nov. 23 about his interest in the head coaching job. During the conversation, Maile told her his three pillars of recruiting were “Utahns, Polynesians and missionaries.” Cockett told investigators that his comment “made her ‘a little worried he would not be inclusive in his recruitment strategy.’”

Cockett said she did not recall expressing that specific concern to players during the Dec. 8 videoconference, but offered, “if I did ask that, I don’t think that is wrong to ask.”

“She added that she perceived her role as identifying and preventing discrimination and that her comments, if any, on the topic of coach Maile’s recruiting strategy, would have been focused on that ideal,” the report reads.

Investigators also conducted two interviews with Hartwell — one on Dec. 17 and a follow-up on Dec. 30. During the second interview, Hartwell was asked to clarify notes he had made that read “talks of LDS church not inclusive” and “religious diversity.” Hartwell said he could not recall Cockett specifically making those statements, but added that if he noted them, someone must have said them during the meeting.

USU’s eight deans unanimously supported Cockett in a vote of confidence. They said in a statement that they “know her to be a person of great humanity — kind, considerate, caring, empathic, inclusive, honest, forthright, and deeply loyal to the values and aspirations of our beloved university.”

Cockett said in a statement that she remained committed to promoting a culture of inclusion and belonging at USU. She also expressed regret over the result of the Dec. 8 meeting.

“In my attempt as president of USU to connect with the students around a sensitive topic, I have learned this caused some students discomfort,” Cockett said. “It was certainly not my intent for this to result in a negative experience, and for that, I sincerely apologize.”

The probe started when the USU Board of Trustees called for an investigation into the meeting with Cockett, Hartwell and the players. Maile then called for a university-wide look into “religious, cultural and racial discrimination” at the school. After that, the state’s higher education board approved an external review and directed that it be reviewed jointly with the USU board.

Maile has since accepted a job at Boise State as an associate head coach and defensive line coach.