Gow pushes back on university claims of computer misuse, insubordination

After hearing both sides, a faculty committee will decide whether UW-La Crosse has enough evidence to dismiss Gow from faculty

Chancellor Gow stands in a crowd of people at an outdoor ceremony.
UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow attends a dedication for the sculpture “Effigy: Bird Form” on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Former University of Wisconsin-La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow pushed back on claims that he used university computers to visit pornography websites during a hearing on whether the university has grounds to dismiss him from faculty.

Gow was fired as chancellor by the Universities of Wisconsin Board of Regents in December following the discovery that he and his wife, Carmen Wilson, appeared in online porn videos. The couple have also published several books under pseudonyms.

Interim UW-La Crosse Chancellor Betsy Morgan recommended Gow’s dismissal from his faculty position in the Department of Communication Studies. He was charged with unethical and potentially illegal behavior based in part on details in his books, insubordination and misuse of university computers.

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Following UW System policy, the university must provide proof of cause to fire Gow to a faculty committee, who will make a recommendation to the chancellor and ultimately the UW Board of Regents.

At the close of the two-day hearing Thursday, the committee went into closed session to consider the charges. There was no set timeline for their decision, which will be released to Gow and the university.

Gow made his case refuting the university’s claims during the second day of the hearing. He called on Morgan to testify, asking her about how the university obtained his university-issued computers and a laptop issued to Wilson in the days ahead of his firing as chancellor.

He questioned why Morgan stated in her dismissal letter that he and Wilson deleted evidence from their computers. He walked through a text message exchange between Morgan, UW-La Crosse Police Chief Allen Hill and a member of the UW System’s Office of General Counsel in which Morgan requested that Hill enter Gow’s office and seize the computers.

Gow also asked Morgan about the urgency around obtaining the devices.

“Do you think it’s possible that the UW System leadership and attorneys were hoping to find damning evidence to enable the Board of Regent to fire me completely on December 27 without needing to go through any of this Chapter 4 process?” Gow asked Morgan, who replied that she “had no idea” of system leadership’s motivations.

Gow also claimed that login information for a number of porn websites found on both his and Wilson’s laptops did not come from them. He said he and his wife did not use university computers for their adult content work, and said they did not post content on some of the websites listed in a report from a university-hired firm.

The university laid out their evidence for the charges during the first day of the hearing on Wednesday, detailing the login findings as well as evidence that a release agreement for a porn website was printed by Gow’s computer on campus.

On Thursday, Wade Harrison, UW System senior legal counsel who represented the university, reiterated Gow’s alleged insubordination by refusing to participate in an interview with private law firm Husch Blackwell, which UW System hired to complete an investigation into Gow while he was on paid administrative leave. He said Gow’s refusal cast doubt on whether he would follow the direction of university leadership if he were allowed to return to the classroom. 

Harrison said Gow acted unethically by failing to disclose his previous business relationship with porn actress Nina Hartley before bringing her to campus for a talk on free speech in 2018. The decision created a public controversy and led to a reprimand from then-UW System President Ray Cross.

He also described a lack of concern from Gow about his conduct or the impact to the university’s reputation.

“Dr. Gow just doesn’t get it, or is unable to acknowledge his conduct is harmful to this campus community and a distraction from its core mission,” Harrison said during closing remarks.

The hearing, which would normally take place in private, was opened to the public by Gow’s request. The committee will continue to meet in private to make a recommendation to the chancellor “as soon as practicable,” according to university policy. 

The chancellor can ultimately make their own recommendation to the UW System President Jay Rothman, who will bring it to the Board of Regents for a final decision.