Late Monday night, someone named “Jimbo” posted on USUFans.com that “the next domino will fall tomorrow”. Jimbo had previously broke the news on the message board about former Athletics Director John Hartwell resigning, and speculation instantly turned to USU President Noelle Cockett being the next “domino.”
The speculation gained more traction as Tuesday morning got started before an announcement came at 10:30 a.m. that effective July 1, 2023, Cockett would be stepping down.
This is a sad day for Utah State University. I do not have details into everything that led to this resignation, but the consensus among those speculating is that the resignation was not entirely of Cockett’s choosing and is more of an opportunity to go out with grace and produce an opportunity for continuity with the next president than making a rapid change immediately. If true, this is a stunning turn of events.
Cockett would be less than a month out of launching the school’s new “Create Your Aggie Impact” campaign which reportedly has already raised more than $220 million for the school, coming off a record fundraising year of $110 million.
The resume of “wins” for Cockett over her six-year tenure are impressive and arguably stand up against any previous university presidents in terms of overall quality:
- Achieving R1 Carnegie research status.
- Establishing Utah’s only veterinary school.
- Establishing an agreement with Fort Valley State University (an HBCU) to collaborate on research, programming, and student support.
- Opened a new campus in Moab.
The challenge is all these wins may have been overshadowed by some very serious — and ongoing — issues that, while it doesn’t look like Cockett was ever directly involved with, she’s in the crossfire and is an a “the buck stops here” situation. These issues stem from a culture of sexual assault and mishandling of sexual assault allegations on campus, and more specifically, within the athletics department. The Salt Lake Tribune has covered the allegations and the “toxic culture” within the football program in depth.
So it is sad that USU is losing a great leader. But it is also sad that there is such a pall over the campus right now with respect to a pattern of mishandling sexual assault reports — such a pattern that heads truly need to roll if change is to be had.
And that’s perhaps where President Cockett has found herself, because ultimately the buck does stop with her. Amongst my friends who are faculty members, she is regarded as a tremendous human, a world-class researcher, and someone who has done well as president with the accomplishments to show. But perhaps this tier of position, in this cultural environment we live in today, with just enough problems on campus that can’t be solved with funding or new buildings or top rankings … perhaps it is a position that doesn’t lend itself to nice people. The shrapnel from the sexual assault bomb that went off on campus has claimed a former USU police chief officially, and tangentially now has hit Hartwell and Cockett. There are some who believe more is to come.
I don’t think President Cockett is to blame for the sexual assault fiasco(s) that happened on her watch. But they did happen on her watch. And sometimes that is enough.
I’m happy that she is going to be given the chance to tie up loose ends and close out her administration strong. I’m thrilled that she will remain on campus as a tenured professor. I’m hopeful that the Board of Regents and search committee will conduct a thorough national search and find the perfect next president of Utah State University, someone who will continue to press what the school can be forward and progress it as the educational and economic beacon that it is for our region, and not regress.
That hope will be what I have to go with in hopes that no more bad news about the school drops in the meantime.