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

A grayscale image of a keyboard with a red key labeled "PORN."

pseudopixels/Getty Images

Over the past two decades, I’ve been invited to interview for deanships at several different institutions. Each time, the feedback has been the same: nice guy, but not our guy. Too outspoken, too opinionated, too “out-there.” He’d be a good faculty member, the reviews said, but he’s not dean material.

Fair enough.

I’ve published nearly 1,000 newspaper and magazine columns in my career, which means that I’ve managed to insult or offend almost everyone. But my writing would land very differently if I were a university leader rather than a lowly professor. That’s because leaders speak for an entire institution. They make an implicit bargain to restrict their speech in exchange for the power we bestow upon them. My interviewers sensed that I wasn’t willing to make that deal, and I think they were right.

I thought of the interviews as I read the sad tale of University of Wisconsin at La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow, who was fired after posting pornographic videos of himself and his wife. The president of the state higher education system, Jay Rothman, said that Gow had caused the university “significant reputational harm.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

The internet is already buzzing with jokes about Gow “going out with a bang” and so on. What Gow does in his bedroom—or in his kitchen—is his own business. But he made a poor decision in posting the videos, which made his university a punch line. He can’t be an effective leader any longer.

But he can—and should—remain on the faculty, which is an entirely different role. So I was troubled to read that Rothman had also asked the university to review Gow’s “status as a tenured faculty member” in the university’s communication studies department. Gow served as chancellor under a limited appointment contract. By contrast, tenure is—or should be—forever.

If Gow loses his professorship, every faculty member will be looking over their shoulder and wondering which parts of their internet footprint might get them fired. You can’t have a free university on those terms.

We’ll also be less likely to take chances in our own classrooms, especially around controversial matters like sex and gender. And that can’t be good for our students, either.

Witness an earlier controversy involving Gow back in 2018, when he invited porn actress Nina Hartley to speak on campus during the university’s free speech week. That earned him a reprimand from the then president of the Wisconsin system, who charged him with “exercising poor judgment” and threatened his expected pay raise.

Never mind that Hartley spoke about the importance of sexual consent, warning students that porn distorted it. “Fantasy is what we want and reality is what we negotiate,” Hartley said.

So let’s suppose that the university revokes Gow’s tenure, citing the Hartley invitation as well as Gow’s porn videos. How many professors are going to feel confident teaching about this subject? And how many will lose their jobs for doing so?

I could be one of them. Several years ago, I invited Lux Alptraum—the CEO of Fleshbot, a porn blog—to my class about the culture wars in the United States. I also invited an antipornography speaker so that students could hear different sides of the issue.

The students ranked that session as the most interesting and engaging class of the semester. But in today’s atmosphere, it’s easy to imagine how simply inviting Alptraum could land me on the do-not-rehire list.

That’s why we need to be very careful distinguishing between Gow’s dual roles, as a university leader and as a professor. Posting his porn videos made him unfit to be chancellor, where he speaks for the entire university. As a faculty member, by contrast, he speaks only for himself. His job isn’t to represent the university; it’s to research, and to teach, and to provoke. If you’re offended by his videos, don’t take his class. But he shouldn’t lose his tenure for sharing them, or for inviting a porn performer to speak on campus.

I feel sorry for Joe Gow. He seems like a good guy who made a bad call. For his sake—and for the future of all of us, no matter where we teach—I hope the university keeps him on the faculty. He’s too out-there to be a leader, but he’ll be fine as a professor. Just like me. And like you.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America (Johns Hopkins Press, 2020) and eight other books.

Next Story

More from Views