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

A picture of smiling Joe Gow with a black bar over his eyes overlaid with words from the charges against him

Opinions vary on whether Gow’s actions amount to “just cause” for stripping him of tenure.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | University of Wisconsin

After discovering sexually explicit online videos of University of Wisconsin at La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow, the Universities of Wisconsin system fired him in December. Now the UW system wants to fire him again—this time from his role as a tenured faculty member.

While that effort is being handled at the university level, the directive comes from the system.

UW system officials allege that Gow made a series of illegal and unethical missteps that warrant the revocation of tenure. Gow, who was already planning to step down as chancellor in May when he was fired late last year, will face a faculty panel next week that will recommend whether he should keep his position as a communication studies professor or lose his job. The final decision on termination, however, lies with UW’s Board of Regents, which condemned Gow’s behavior when UW fired him as UWL chancellor.

Some Wisconsin Republicans have embraced the system’s efforts to fire Gow, arguing that his behavior is amoral and unbefitting of a public university employee. But free speech advocates have decried the move as an attempt by the system to save face in the wake of an embarrassing scandal. They argue that firing Gow from his tenured faculty job violates the First Amendment, which protects sexually explicit speech—including the pornography Gow made outside the university.

Both Gow and the university will make their case in front of a faculty panel on Wednesday.

The Charges

The charges against Gow fall into three categories. He is accused of “unethical and potentially illegal conduct,” of failing to cooperate with the December investigation that led to his firing, and of violating information technology use policies, according to a list of charges he shared with Inside Higher Ed.

Of the 12 charges of unethical and potentially illegal behavior, eight are related to his pornographic double life. UW officials accuse Gow of participating in “apparently illegal conduct” by allegedly paying for sex on at least five occasions in different states. Some of the charges are drawn from two books written by Gow and his wife, Carmen Wilson—who co-starred in the video productions—which discuss paying people for sex and claim that “all the events described are true.”

UW further alleges that Gow shirked his job duties in order to shoot porn and raises concerns about his invitation to adult film star Nina Hartley, who spoke at UW La Crosse in 2018 (for which Gow was disciplined at the time). Other alleged misconduct includes underreporting vacation time, taking leftover food and wine from football games and printing a vegan cookbook on university equipment.

Gow is also accused of refusing to cooperate with the investigation into his firing, including by allegedly deleting information from university-owned computers. Related charges on technology-use policies allege that Gow received “vendor emails” at his work account “for sex toys and other sex products,” and configured web browsers on a university laptop to remember login credentials for seven pornographic sites, among other things.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Gow largely disputed the charges leveled against him and discussed the First Amendment argument he is preparing to make at the hearing.

“At root here, what we have is a situation where I exercised my First Amendment freedoms, did things on my own time, and put them on social media, on the internet. And that’s what this case ultimately is about. Do we have a First Amendment freedom to do that?” he said.

Gow also disputes the notion he made money off the videos, as UW officials have claimed; if he earned more than $1,000 a year from them, he would be required as a public official to report the income. Instead, Gow said his video ventures were costly rather than profitable.

“My wife and I paid a whole lot of money to make those,” he said. “It was a very expensive hobby.”

In response to allegations that he broke the law by paying for sex, Gow noted that the burden of proof is on the university: “You shouldn’t be able to fire somebody for what they wrote in a book,” he said.

Gow denies that he failed to cooperate with the investigation, arguing that after he requested a lawyer during questioning, officials concluded the process without talking to him. He also disputes claims that he misused university computers or deleted any information. Gow noted that he was fired as chancellor in late December while traveling for the holidays, and UW personnel seized the equipment he is accused of misusing from his office while he was out of town; therefore, he didn’t even have access to the computers they claim he deleted information from.

Gow plans to represent himself at the hearing, a process he gained experience with during his 17-year stint as UW La Crosse chancellor. The Chapter 4 process, as it is known, is a legal mechanism used for disciplining faculty members in the state.

“I am very interested to see what particular charges they attempt to prove and how they attempt to do that. I haven’t seen anything so far that I’m very worried about. I feel quite confident,” Gow said. “I don’t know how much of this is going to be about free speech and expression because I think they lose on that. They’re probably going to try to go into other things, like did we misuse university equipment, or not cooperating with the investigators, because they created that.”

Gow also believes that thorny Wisconsin politics are at play in the background. He noted that critical statements about him by Republican lawmakers Rob Hutton and Steve Nass are included in the investigative report UW will present at the hearing to justify firing Gow from the faculty.

Around the time he was fired as chancellor, he said, UW system president Jay Rothman was negotiating with Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos over diversity, equity and inclusion positions, employee raises and building projects. Gow wonders whether his firing was a concession to Republican lawmakers who have frequently criticized the UW system.

“That might not have been the only motive, but certainly there was a call—and these are Republican legislators—to do something to get rid of me and do an investigation,” Gow said.

Does UW Have Just Cause?

UW system and UW La Crosse officials are keeping quiet on the matter. The system did not respond to a request for comment, and a UWL spokesperson declined to comment, noting “this is an ongoing personnel matter.” UWL’s Faculty Senate President also declined to comment for the same reason. GOP lawmakers who have called for Gow’s firing also declined to comment.

The Chapter 4 process appears to follow recommendations by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for how to fire or discipline faculty members. Some experts believe the case against Gow is fundamentally flawed; others question how UW will prove it has “just cause” to fire Gow, arguing the listed charges don’t demonstrate any shortcomings in his faculty duties.

Gregory Scholtz, senior program officer in the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance at AAUP, pointed to a paragraph in the list of charges against Gow in which UWL Interim Chancellor Betsy Morgan says that his alleged violations have caused leadership” to “lose trust” in his “ability to carry out duties” in his role as a professor and given her “just cause” to revoke his tenure and fire him.

But to Scholtz the just cause argument is lacking.

“We have long taken the position that faculty members should be dismissed for cause for reasons that are directly related to their actual performance as teachers or researchers,” Scholtz said. “I don’t see anything in here about his actual performance as a professor of communication studies.”

Then there’s the free speech argument.

“The First Amendment protects pornography and other sexually explicit expression,” said Zach Greenberg, a First Amendment attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which plans to release a statement supporting Gow. “And faculty members have the right to engage in protected expression, both within their faculty role and in their own personal roles—extramural speech. It’s clear in this situation that UW is seeking to punish Professor Gow for the pornography he created outside of the university role. UW leadership has repeatedly expressed its disgust and outrage at this hobby, which it has described as abhorrent.”

Greenberg believes UW is fighting a moral battle over a legal matter, leveling a litany of flimsy allegations against Gow.

“The weakness and the inconsequential nature of the charges underlie the true motivation for the punishment, which is university opposition to his pornographic activities,” Greenberg said. “Some of these are so inconsequential it’s almost laughable. Receiving Amazon delivery emails to his work email, using the internet browser to remember passwords, printing out personal documents on university printer—is this the kind of serious misconduct that justifies firing a tenured professor?”

He also stressed that neither the system nor the university is capable of determining whether Gow broke the law, which he said is a matter for law enforcement to determine.

And he raised concerns about the long-term repercussions of firing Gow.

“If they’re going to use his book to show [illegal conduct], it’s a chilling action by the university that would deter professors from speaking out, from publishing their own memoirs, because they know the university can go after their faculty role, really for talking about their lives,” Greenberg said.

Awaiting His Fate

While the Gow case may be one of the more high-profile incidents of a professor facing termination in connection to their sex life, it’s not unprecedented. In 2010 the now-defunct John F. Kennedy University fired professor Sheila Addison for performing in burlesque shows under the stage name “Professor Shimmy.” Addison was accused of harming the university’s reputation.

Addison, who was not tenured, sued the university for breach of contract, termination for political activity, sex discrimination and harassment, among other claims. She alleged in court documents that a “similarly situated male professor in another department” had invited students and faculty to a one-man play he performed in that included “disrobing and partial nudity.” Yet he wasn’t fired because of his gender, she alleged.

Legal documents show the matter was settled out of court in 2011.

Now, as he heads to next week’s hearing, Gow is wondering what fate awaits him.

If the faculty panel finds that he should keep his job, that recommendation will be reviewed by Morgan. If the interim chancellor chooses to pursue his termination anyway, Morgan can recommend that the Wisconsin Board of Regents fire Gow. And, based on initial statements from regents condemning Gow’s X-rated activities, the board seems inclined to go along.

“I never hurt anybody,” Gow said, arguing that his salacious secret life took place within the confines of his marriage and on his own time. He said the charges don’t clear the high bar for revocation of tenure, and believes “there is an element of performance” in administrators’ actions.

Gow, once the longest-serving chancellor in the system, is now eager to return to the classroom. Asked how he would handle reputational concerns, Gow said he would be upfront about his activities “to clear the air,” but that his classes won’t touch on sex.

While he recognizes that “there are probably some students who wouldn’t want to take a course with me and they might find it awkward,” Gow says he’s heard directly from other students who are eager to have him teach. Next week he will find out if the faculty panel feels the same way.

Next Story

Written By

More from Executive Leadership