You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A photo illustration of fired UW La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow

Fired UW La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow has said he’s weighing his legal options.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | UW La Crosse

Fired for appearing in pornographic videos with his wife, former University of Wisconsin at La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow has said in various interviews that he is considering filing a lawsuit against the system, arguing that the Board of Regents ignored due process when it voted to dismiss him last week.

Gow, who was set to step down in May after 17 years leading UW La Crosse, was abruptly terminated Dec. 27 following a unanimous board vote. A statement from the Universities of Wisconsin system denounced his behavior in vague terms, never addressing the content Gow and his wife, Carmen Wilson, produced on at least two adult websites under the name “Sexy Happy Couple.”

In the statement, UW system president Jay Rothman called Gow’s actions “abhorrent” and accused him of causing “significant reputational harm” to the university. Though Rothman cited “specific conduct,” he did not directly address the videos.

In the same statement, Board of Regents president Karen Walsh accused Gow of showing a “reckless disregard” for his position, adding that the board was “alarmed, and disgusted” by his actions, which were “wholly and undeniably inconsistent with his role as chancellor.”

After he was fired, Gow accused the UW system Board of Regents of overreacting, arguing that his conduct was consensual, protected by the First Amendment and did not generate any outside income.

A Salacious Secret

Gow’s pornographic double life was a secret hiding in plain sight.

In various interviews with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and local TV stations, Gow said he and his wife have made adult content for more than a decade, initially for their own private purposes, and anonymously penned two books about their sex life. The couple only recently decided to make their videos more public, uploading content with their faces—and other parts—clearly visible on various sites in the past few months. While some of their content was available behind a paywall, it only gained traction when it was uploaded to a popular adult website for free.

It isn’t the first time Gow has made headlines related to adult content.

In 2018, he invited adult film performer Nina Hartley to speak at UW La Crosse, paying her $5,000 from the chancellor’s discretionary funds for a talk titled “Fantasy Versus Reality: Viewing Adult Media With a Critical Eye.” The event reportedly drew about 70 students but prompted concerns from then UW system president Ray Cross, who chided Gow for inviting a porn actress to campus.

“Apart from my personal underlying moral concerns, I am deeply disappointed by your decision to actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the La Crosse campus to lecture students about sex and the adult entertainment industry,” Cross wrote to Gow in 2018.

Regents also expressed shock and dismay at Gow’s decision.

“Pornography is a horrible hill on which to plant the flag of free expression,” Regent Bob Atwell wrote in an opinion piece for The La Crosse Tribune following Hartley’s appearance.

Gow voluntarily reimbursed the $5,000 paid to Hartley and was formally reprimanded. A month later, Gow was denied a $25,6000 performance raise; Cross accused him of “poor judgment” in inviting Hartley to appear on campus as part of free speech programming.

(Hartley would later appear in a video on the couple’s “Sexy Healthy Cooking” YouTube series.)

At the time, some critics accused the UW system of upholding a double standard on free speech, arguing that Gow shouldn’t have been punished for inviting Hartley to participate in a wide-ranging discussion on the adult entertainment industry that addressed concerns such as human trafficking and exploitation.

Following the fallout over Hartley’s talk, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression accused system leaders of engaging in censorship “to head off criticism” and warned that such behavior could “chill speech and narrow the range of viewpoints expressed” on campus.

A Potential Lawsuit?

In interviews following his termination, Gow has floated the possibility of seeking legal recourse.

“We haven’t had the time to really work through what might be appropriate moving forward, so we’ll look at that in the coming days,” Gow told TV station WKBT when asked whether he would consider legal action.

Gow has said his adult film endeavors are an “expensive hobby”; rather than making money from the videos, he has spent about $80,000 on content development. He disputed the notion that he was earning outside income, which he would be required to report as chancellor.

Gow has also suggested that his academic tenure is under threat.

According to his contract, Gow is allowed to return to the UW La Crosse faculty after his chancellorship. But that move may not be guaranteed; Rothman said that in the wake of Gow’s firing, he has requested “that such status be reviewed.”

To Gow, it’s free speech hypocrisy.

“The regents have a policy that’s called the commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression, and it’s designed to not only protect but encourage people to explore controversial topics,” Gow said in the WKBT interview. “I think this sends a very troubling signal to everybody in the Universities of Wisconsin system that the regents really aren’t about free speech.”

Rothman did not directly address questions about Gow’s free speech argument or the ongoing tenure-review process in a response to questions from Inside Higher Ed Tuesday afternoon.

“Good judgment requires that there are and must be limits on what is said or done by the individuals entrusted to lead our universities,” he wrote in an email. “We expect our chancellors, as the leaders of these great institutions, to be role models for our students, staff, and faculty as well [as] for the communities we are privileged to serve. We likewise expect our chancellors to put the interests of the universities they lead ahead of their own personal and outside financial interests. We believe these are attributes of great leaders in whom we can all take pride.”

Ultimately, Rothman argued, “Dr. Gow failed to live up to those standards. As a result of that abject failure, Dr. Gow is no longer the UWL chancellor, and it is time for us to turn the page.”

Legal experts suggest that while Gow’s online activities are clearly protected free speech, the situation is complex. While the system may be within its legal rights to fire Gow as chancellor, free speech advocates say, the possibility of revoking his tenured faculty status is alarming.

“Faculty members absolutely have the right to have lives outside of their classroom. They can hold controversial opinions, or vote for who they want, and, yes, make pornographic videos,” argued Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at FIRE. “That is totally legal.”

Morey said that FIRE is watching the situation closely, particularly the matter of tenure review.

“There’s nothing he’s done at this point that suggests his faculty role should be jeopardized,” she said.

Next Story

Written By

More from Executive Leadership