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USU’s board of trustees calls for independent investigation into alleged comments made by Noelle Cockett to football team

Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University, speaks about the spread of COVID-19 during a press conference in the Emergency Operations Center at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University, speaks about the spread of COVID-19 during a press conference in the Emergency Operations Center at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah State University’s board of trustees announced Saturday that it will retain an independent investigator to conduct a review of concerns raised by student-athletes, specifically members of the USU football team, regarding alleged discriminatory statements made by USU President Noelle Cockett earlier this week.

“We take this matter seriously and understand that facts and details matter,” said Jody Burnett, chair of the board of trustees. “The players’ statement did not provide details about what was said. As a result, we will be working with an independent investigator to understand what was said during the meeting and the context for the alleged statements. Consistent with our university culture, USU is committed to listening to students, and we will handle this matter with integrity, fairness and open minds.”

On Friday, as was first reported by Stadium’s Brett McMurphy, USU’s football team opted out of playing in its season finale against Colorado State Saturday in an attempt to highlight “the ongoing problems of inequality” at Utah State.

Those problems, from the players’ perspective, came to a head Tuesday during a Zoom meeting with Cockett and athletic director John Hartwell. The meeting was held to give the players a voice in the school’s recently concluded head coaching search.

According to McMurphy’s report, during the meeting, which was not recorded, Cockett allegedly made discriminatory statements in regard to the candidacy of interim head coach Frank Maile, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is of Polynesian descent.

USU announced Saturday that Blake Anderson has been hired as the new head football coach.

The board of trustees met Saturday to address the concerns raised by the players and “will provide further information as soon as possible.”

In response to the players’ allegations, Cockett issued this statement Friday:

“I am devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background,” she said. “Throughout my professional career and, especially, as president of USU, I have welcomed the opportunity to meet directly and often with students about their experiences. Regardless of how difficult the conversations might be in the coming days, I remain committed to giving our students a voice.”