Dealing with sexual assault was the focus of attention during the Utah Presidential Candidates Forum

Logan • Three finalists for the role of Utah State University president — Rodney D. Bennett, Elizabeth R. Cantwell and Kenneth L. White — spoke during public sessions Wednesday as the Utah Board of Higher Education nears the selection of USU’s new leader.

The three want to replace outgoing President Noelle Cockett, who announced in November that she would step down from her position effective July 1 after six years at the helm of USU.

Although credited to Cockett for expanding the university’s drive for more higher education in rural Utah through numerous expansion campuses around Utah, her tenure has been marred by controversy.

Since taking office in 2017, Utah has seen numerous lawsuits over the Aggie football program, the toxic environment in USU’s piano department and the university’s poor handling of sexual assault – the latter of which led to a Justice Department investigation. The DOJ concluded that the state of Utah had failed to adequately respond to sexual assault complaints since 2013, well before Cockett took office as president.

Dozens of USU faculty and community members listened to questions from the three candidates at the Eccles Conference Center on the Logan campus. Faculty, staff and students asked candidates how they would address student mental health needs, support veterans and achieve sustainability goals on campus.

An eventful story is the focus

Campus security was among the first issues discussed during the forums. Participants asked the candidates about the university’s tumultuous final years and how they would deal with sexual assault on campus if selected.

Bennett, a past president of the University of Southern Mississippi, said his previous university also struggled with on-campus sexual assault, and he said he discouraged the hiring of those with a history of sexual misconduct.

When asked how she would handle sexual assault on campus, Cantwell, an administrator at the University of Arizona, emphasized the need for clear, enforceable policies and properly trained investigators.

“It’s really a delicate and important part of our job if we want to make people feel safe here and at any university,” Cantwell said.

She added that she knows new USU Police Commissioner Jason Brei quite well, having been with the University of Arizona Police Department since 2000. Brei was named the new USU police chief earlier this month and is scheduled to take up the job on July 1.

White, the only candidate with USU credentials as a faculty member, was asked directly what he had done to address sexual misconduct on campus.

“That’s relatively easy to answer,” White said. “I had, let’s say, an incident in college [of Agriculture and Applied Sciences], and that led to termination. And if I were to become President, the same philosophy applies. There is no place for sexual misconduct in this environment.”

He added that families entrust their children to the university and “we need to create an environment where.” [sexual assault] is not a problem,” he adds, adding that the same applies to employees.

“There is absolutely no tolerance, no alibi, no excuse to justify sexual misconduct,” White said.

Diverse biographies and different visions

Two candidates vying for Utah state leadership hail from different parts of the country, while the third is a familiar face in the Logan community. Each expressed their unique visions for the future of USU while pledging to maintain the institution’s familiar character as a land-grant university.

Bennett is the past president of the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was the first black president to head the university. According to his biography published by USU, he held the post for almost ten years.

Under Bennett, USM recorded over $300 million in capital improvements. However, Bennett was also USM president during a scandal involving former NFL quarterback Brett Favre that saw approximately $5 million poured from the Mississippi Department of Human Services to build a volleyball stadium at USM.

Bennett has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the scandal as text messages made public reveal that he does not approve of Favre trying to use government money to build the stadium. According to the Mississippi Free Press, Bennett said in a text message to former Gov. Phil Bryant, “The bottom line is that[Favre]personally guaranteed the (stadium) project, and on his word and his handshake, we moved on.” It’s time for paying him – it really is that simple.”

Bennett announced in January 2022 that he would step down from running USM before his contract expires in June. The Favre scandal was not mentioned during his candidate forum.

According to her biography, published by USU, Cantwell is currently the University of Arizona’s senior vice president of research and innovation. Her responsibilities include overseeing the university’s UA Tech Park, a large research park in Tuscon that contributes $1.7 billion to the local economy.

During her forum, Cantwell referenced her past as a sponsor of startups and helping UA become more self-reliant, describing that self-reliance as a way to make college more affordable for students.

She said UA no longer relied on government funding. She said that in 2008, 60% of UA’s funding came from the state. Now, she said, that number is around 7%.

“We figured it out,” Cantwell said. “We’re going to do that, but we need to focus on making it affordable to make it affordable for students.”

Cantwell is also a member of the University of Arizona’s Provost’s Council, whose chairman recently resigned over campus safety concerns after a professor was shot dead on campus in October, allegedly by the hand of a disengaged student. The shooting prompted the university faculty senate to pass a vote of no confidence in UA President Robert Robbins.

According to his USU bio, White, the only state nominee for president, currently serves as vice president for USU expansion as well as dean of the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences.

During his speech, White would often thank questioners by name when they approached the microphone, showing how well he knows the USU community.

“I love this institution,” White said. “My blood is the right color, blue.”

White was asked what he would do to make the university more inclusive and foster a healthy institution. He said the president’s job is to lead and if elected he would lead by example.

“There should never be a time when anyone feels unwelcome or doesn’t belong on this campus,” White said.

White serves on the board of directors of the Space Dynamics Laboratory and is also credited with being one of those behind the founding of USU’s new School of Veterinary Medicine, USU’s newest college.

Justin Scaccy

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