After 17 years, UW-La Crosse chancellor announces plans to step down

Joe Gow, who was once reprimanded for inviting adult film star to campus, will go back to teaching

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow addresses faculty and staff Aug. 30 ahead of the start of the fall semester. Gow told colleagues he plans to step down as chancellor after 17 years. Photo courtesy of UW-La Crosse

After 17 years, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow has announced he will step down. During his tenure, the campus has bucked declining enrollment trends and is now one of just three state colleges not running a budget deficit.

Gow was hired as UW-La Crosse’s 10th chancellor in 2007 at the age of 46. Now 62, Gow told Wisconsin Public Radio he’s “done about everything I’ve wanted to do as a chancellor.”

“It’s been really a privilege and a pleasure,” Gow said.

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In terms of accomplishments, Gow credited his campus leadership team with getting approval from the UW System Board of Regents for a differential tuition structure, which allowed the university to raise tuition for students attending classes in high-demand fields like science and business.

“When I came, we were just trying to get that done, and so I was kind of the relief pitcher that came in and made sure we won the game,” Gow said. “And that enabled us to add over 225 more faculty and staff positions, which took the student faculty ratio from 24:1, which is a high ratio, down to about 18:1.”

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow waves to faculty and staff after announcing he plans to step down after leading the campus for 17 years. Photo courtesy of UW-La Crosse

In 2018, Gow became embroiled in controversy after inviting adult film star Nina Hartley to speak about free speech on campus. That led to a reprimand from former UW System President Ray Cross, who told Gow he was “deeply disappointed” in his decision to “actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the UW-La Crosse campus to lecture students about sex and the adult entertainment industry.”

Looking back, the controversy was “very helpful,” Gow said, because the campus was referenced by media outlets around the world. He said it elevated the university’s commitment to free speech.

“I remain puzzled as to the strong negative reaction among some people,” Gow said. “And (now) some of those people are saying, ‘They’re staunch advocates for free speech.’”

When asked what the biggest challenges he and the campus have faced over the past 17 years, Gow was quick to point to the COVID-19 pandemic. In spring of 2020, all the UW System’s 13 universities shut down after classes were quickly moved online.

“You know, the teamwork that came out of that was remarkable,” Gow said. “But the level of intensity that we had to operate… you wouldn’t want to do that for too long.”

Students returned to in-person classes in fall of 2020, but a rash of positive COVID-19 tests in a UW-La Crosse residence hall led to an order for students to shelter in place. Classes were moved back online for the following two weeks.

A longer term challenge for UW-La Crosse and it’s next chancellor will be a declining number of high school graduates. While enrollment at most UW System campuses has steadily dropped over the past decade, UW-La Crosse has only lost around 245 students since 2013. Others have seen declines as high as 28 percent.

“That means it’s going to be even more competitive in terms of recruiting,” Gow said. “And so we need to make sure we continue to do the kind of things as far as being very distinctive with what we offer and very student-centered and doing a lot of recruiting and retention, making sure students stay and finish and get their degrees.”

At the same time enrollment has fallen for most state universities, so has financial support from the Wisconsin Legislature. The most recent state budget includes what amounts to a $32 million cut to the UW System at a time when the state has a multi-billion dollar surplus.

That cut was aimed at defunding diversity, equity and inclusion programs at campuses like UW-La Crosse. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has claimed DEI is really about political indoctrination.

“We know that the students who are going to be coming to universities in the future will be more diverse,” Gow said. “The demographics are very clear on that. We need to have programs in place to support them and to, you know, recruit them.”

In 2025, Gow said, he’ll teach communications classes at the campus situated about a mile from the Mississippi River. He said he spent 18 years in the classroom before coming to La Crosse.

In the interim, he’ll continue leading the university through the end of the 2024 spring semester as the UW System Board of Regents searches for his replacement.

On a personal level, Gow said, he’s looking forward to being able to spend more time at home. Gow’s wife, Carmen Wilson, is a fellow educator who is now working on a vegan cookbook, he said, and Gow has been experimenting with online video production.

“And so it’s fun, you know, having something that’s completely outside of the university to look at,” Gow said.

The UW System hasn’t yet announced a timeline for when the search for the next UW-La Crosse chancellor will begin.