LOGAN — It has become a common sight on the Utah State campus: a tall, slender woman jogging from room to room and building to building in a skirt and high heels, bags and papers in hand.
This would not be noteworthy except the woman is Noelle Cockett, the president of the university. She has a reputation for being late to meetings, which is why she is frequently seen dashing out of Old Main to the student center or elsewhere to another meeting.
During her inauguration as the school’s 16th president a year ago, one of the speakers drew loud laughter when he alluded to her tardiness.
“It’s a big joke on campus,” she says, laughing.
Cockett tells her assistant that she likes her schedule to be busy and full, and she obliges. What do you expect from a woman who grew up on a Montana cattle ranch, working from dawn to dusk and never took a vacation until she went off to college. She not only oversees a university, but also continues to do animal genetics research — her original career — and has a husband and two children.
Cockett — open, unpretentious, humorous and loquacious (“As you can tell I love to talk!” she says) — will talk expansively about the many challenges that she and the university face, not the least of which is an ongoing Title IX investigation, which presumably will focus on events that predated Cockett’s presidency. But the enthusiasm meter rises considerably when she is asked about her research.
She was a scientist first and then was recruited into administration, but she remains passionate about the former. When the subject is raised, she becomes increasingly animated and almost leaps out of her chair a couple of times to find papers about her research. She fills the air with esoteric terms — genome sequencing and mapping, proteins and chromosomes — as well as the pros and cons of sheep with big buttocks (no, seriously; more later).
When someone mentions her obvious passion for genetic studies, she notes it’s not the first time someone has made this observation.
“I’m embarrassed,” she says. “I probably should light up when I talk about Utah State. I love the university, as well.”
In 1999, she was a full professor and researcher when she was urged by Stan Albrecht, the dean of arts and humanities at the time, to become the interim dean of USU’s graduate program. At 42, she was young for such a position.
“I was flattered,” she says. “Wow, people think I can do this. The dean has noticed me.”
She had won respect with her knack for remembering names and numbers, which enables her to make connections and pull together pieces of a puzzle when it comes to problem-solving. By way of urging her into administrative work, one administrator told her, “whenever you’re in a meeting, you’re the smartest person at the table.”
She discovered she liked being involved in the machinations of the university at large, but after 18 months she returned to full-time teaching and research. Three months later, she bumped into Albrecht, who was now the provost.
“You sure you don’t want to continue doing this (administrative work)?” he asked. She confessed that she missed it, and three weeks later he hired her as vice provost.
She dropped teaching and divided her time between research and provost duties. She eventually became dean of the agriculture department, then vice president for extension, executive vice president and provost, and finally president in the fall of 2016.
She had planned to be a veterinarian, but she made a common freshman mistake when she entered Montana State at the age of 17. Freed from the constraints of her mother and ranch work and a limited social life far from town, she partied and played. At 5-foot-11 and wiry strong from years of ranch work, she joined the school’s rugby club and loved the physicality. She had thrown calves; it was nothing to throw down coeds.
After two semesters of seeing her grades fall to C’s and D’s, she immediately became an A student again, but she realized her hopes for vet school were finished. She continued to take pre-vet classes and discovered that she enjoyed biology, chemistry, math and genetics. She earned a degree in animal science and then completed master’s and Ph.D programs at Oregon State. While pursuing those advanced degrees, she began research projects in animal breeding and genetics.
Cockett divided her time between the family home in Miles City, Montana, and her uncle’s ranch 100 miles away. Her father died when she was 8 years old, and she and her brother spent summers and weekends working as hired hands on their uncle’s 3,500-acre ranch, where he raised beef cattle and horses. Nobody treated her like a girl. She plowed, disked and planted the fields. She cut, raked, baled and trucked the grain. She repaired fences and branded cattle. For a time, she rode her horse out at dawn to cull the best cattle for artificial insemination in a project to improve the herd — namely, to create good meat. It was her first exposure to breeding and genetics.
“I learned there were certain things men could do that I couldn’t do because they were stronger,” she says. “I couldn’t lift as much, but I drove the swather better. My rows were much cleaner, with straighter lines and no clumps.”
Years later, when she was a successful administrator in higher education, she would be urged at various times to advise women on how to succeed in the workplace and become better leaders, but this initially perplexed her. Nobody had ever cared if she was a woman; she just put her head down and worked, and it had taken her places.
“I didn’t do well with that because I think you just go do it,” she says. “Then I started realizing that is me. For other women, they haven’t been in situations where they learned that. There is hesitancy about what they can or can’t do. I’ve gotten better about the kind of advice I can give to women, maybe because I see the hesitancy (in other women). I had never thought otherwise.”
Her uncle tried to convince her that if she wanted to be a rancher or help ranchers, she didn’t need college; he could teach her everything she needed to know. She wanted to prove otherwise. For her master’s project, she did genetic research on cattle, spending much of her time at the U.S. Meat and Animal Research Center in Clay, Nebraska. She studied the blood of newborn calves to determine the quantity of antibodies in the calf’s bloodstream. She ultimately concluded that in the calf’s first 24 hours of life, antibodies are able to transfer from the mother’s colostrum through the stomach lining to the bloodstream, but after that the transfer is closed.
“It’s how well the mothers mother their calves,” Cockett explains. “The sooner the calves drink, the more antibodies transfer. The good mothers get the calves up and drinking as soon after birth as they can. We also discovered the older mothers were better moms. You could see it. They were more protective and they nudged them early to get up right away and nurse.”
Turning down the offer of a faculty position at Oklahoma State, she pursued a Ph.D. For her research project, she tested the same calves she had studied in her master’s project, except this time to determine how they responded to vaccination. She discovered that the mother’s antibodies neutralized the vaccine, attacking it as they would any infection. She concluded that the vaccine should be given later, after the antibodies had dissipated and it was time for the calf’s own antibodies to take over.
Officials at the U.S. Meat and Animal Research were impressed enough that they hired Cockett, and she continued to advance her research and her education, learning, for instance, how to sequence and clone DNA.
During a visit to Logan for a conference of the American Society of Animal Science, she became smitten with Cache Valley. Not long afterward, she saw a position open up at USU in animal genetics and was hired in 1990. She taught and continued her research. Among other things, she and collaborator Jon Beaver — an associate professor at the University of Illinois — identified a mutation that causes spider lamb syndrome, a condition in which the bones continue to grow (“It’s the same gene that causes dwarfism, but in a different part of the gene,” she says). She and Beaver patented a genetic test for the syndrome.
Cockett’s administrative duties have pulled her out of the classroom and the lab for the most part and given her a broader scope of problems to solve. She talks about the need for people to get the education level they need — not all students require a college degree for their careers, she says; they need certificate and course work. She is concerned about “underserved” students — minorities, the poor — who have difficulty accessing higher ed either because of finances or simply because it is difficult to navigate the system and understand the requirements for admission.
“The gap between college and no college is getting bigger,” she says. She finds it ironic that discussions about this issue are held by the advantaged.
“Does anyone at the table not have a college degree?” she says. “We need to get those who don’t have one around the table and into the conversations. I am passionate about this.”
As president of the university, she has been drawn into the fray of a variety of issues that might be even more complex than DNA and genomes. The most serious: The school has been rocked by a series of rape allegations and has been criticized in the media for failing to properly handle those accusations. Cockett says the school has created an online reporting system and notes the school had a sex-and-respect week that featured a speaker on abstinence.
This comes too late to head off scrutiny. The Department of Justice informed the school last winter that it is investigating “numerous reports of student-on-student sexual assault” between 2013 and 2016. The DOJ followed up that letter with another one that requested more information and visited the campus this fall.
“That’s all they’ve said,” says Cockett. “At this point we don’t know (what the investigation is about specifically). We’ve asked if they could share information because we care about the safety of our students. We’d like to implement things, if needed. We’ve been working on this about 18 months, and the message is mandatory reporting by any employee of anything they hear to Title IX … I do think the incidents of reports will go up because people know how to report. As time goes on, if incidents are going up, we’ll have to address that. We would like this to be a model university in this.”
Cockett says all this in a meeting with a reporter that has gone 20 minutes longer than she had planned.
This means she will be late for a meeting, again.
She has another full schedule of meetings throughout the day and the week. Even with such pressing issues and with all her duties as president, Cockett tries to get away from the office once a week to do research with a flock of more than 200 sheep and a growing herd of goats.5 comments on this story
She has an ongoing project that studies callipyge, a Greek word meaning “beautiful buttocks.” These sheep have bigger rear ends and thus more meat, but the meat is too tough for the U.S. market. As a result, she is part of a project that is trying to market the sheep in Third World countries and to develop the trait in goats, which are a common source of meat for subsistence farmers because they are hardier than sheep.
“I guess in some sense I’m a still a teacher, or I love giving new information,” she says. “And it’s helping people. I could help the rancher. It really was part of what I was always doing.”