UW-La Crosse faculty committee considers removal of former chancellor from faculty position

Joe Gow was removed as UW-La Crosse chancellor for producing adult films. A faculty committee will decide whether the university has enough evidence to remove him from faculty.

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow addresses faculty and staff Aug. 30
UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow addresses faculty and staff Aug. 30 ahead of the start of the fall semester. Photo courtesy of UW-La Crosse

The former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse fired for appearing in online pornography is calling efforts to remove him from his tenured teaching position “bogus.”

But at a hearing Wednesday, an attorney for the university said the school has cause to remove former Chancellor Joe Gow from his faculty position, including unethical behavior and insubordination.

Wade Harrison, senior legal counsel for the Universities of Wisconsin, laid out the case for removing Gow during the first day of a hearing held by a faculty senate committee. The two-day hearing, which would normally be held in private, was opened to the public at Gow’s request.

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Gow was fired from his position as chancellor by the UW Board of Regents in December, following the discovery that he and his wife, Carmen Wilson, appeared in online porn videos.

The couple produce videos under the name “Sexy Happy Couple” for adult websites and social media, and have published several books.

Since his abrupt firing, Gow has maintained that his actions are protected under UW System’s policy protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression. The policy states that members of the university community may not obstruct or interfere with the freedom of others “to express views they reject or even loathe.” 

During his opening statement at the hearing, Gow called the administration’s charges “irrelevant, inconsequential, misleading, distorted and downright false.” He also claimed UW System president Jay Rothman fired him as chancellor while under pressure from Republican state lawmakers. Gow claimed the move to fire him began as a complaint that he had failed to submit accurate financial disclosure forms.

“Tenure is based on the quality of one’s teaching, research and service,” Gow said during the hearing. “These bogus charges have nothing to do with that and they raise the question: do faculty have the right to engage in free speech in their personal lives, particularly on contemporary social media?”

Harrison, the attorney for the UW System, centered his questioning in part on Gow’s failure to participate in interviews with Husch Blackwell, the law firm hired by the administration to handle the investigation. Harrison also questioned witnesses about the negative impact Gow’s conduct has had on the university and on his ability to return to teaching.

During his opening statement, Harrison acknowledged the unusual nature of the case, including the involvement of pornography. He argued creation of adult content by a public employee is not protected by First Amendment rights.

“The activities are at odds with the mission and purpose of the university and interfere with the efficient operations of the university,” Harrison said. “Accordingly, the university can lawfully take disciplinary action. While Dr. Gow’s content creation does not trigger criminal liability, it does not insulate him from employment actions.”

Harrison claimed that Gow acted unethically by failing to disclose a previous business relationship with adult film start Nina Hartley before bringing her to speak about free speech on campus in 2018. Harrison also pointed to potential criminal conduct described in Gow’s books, which he and Wilson published under psedonyms.

Gow will have a chance to lay out his argument when the committee reconvenes Thursday morning.

After the hearing, committee members will make a recommendation to the chancellor regarding Gow’s dismissal. The decision will ultimately be made by the UW Board of Regents.