Joe Gow, the former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, finds himself grappling with regret over the recent revelation of his involvement in sex videos that ultimately led to the termination of his 17-year career. In hindsight, Gow wishes he hadn’t concealed this aspect of his life for so long, driven by the fear of potential rejection from the higher education community.

Despite years of hearing UW leaders champion the significance of free speech, Gow decided to test the waters, feeling that the timing was appropriate as he had a few months left in his chancellorship and plans to return as a faculty member in the coming fall. He wanted to raise questions about free speech and gauge the response from the university board.

Discussing the matter with his wife, they collectively decided to adopt a more open approach. However, the outcome was unexpected for Gow, who, moments after learning of his termination, expressed his surprise, believing that the board, given their strong support for free speech, would be more understanding.

The reaction from UW leaders was harsh, using terms like “abhorrent,” “reckless,” and “disgusted” to characterize Gow’s actions. A law firm is set to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the matter.

Gow remains uncertain about how UW System officials became aware of the videos, all of which were posted in the last two months. He emphasizes that his activities were in line with the freedom granted by the First Amendment, allowing citizens to create and publish materials exploring consensual adult sexuality.

The irony is not lost on Gow, given the university’s emphasis on free speech, a topic particularly significant to the Republican-controlled Legislature overseeing the UW System’s funding. Despite the board’s commitment to freedom of expression, Gow’s termination highlights a potential inconsistency in their stance.

Reflecting on a recent free speech panel he attended, Gow felt confident that his videos and books would be accepted by society. However, he points to a previous incident in 2018, where his invitation of adult film actress Nina Hartley to speak on campus resulted in a reprimand and denied pay raise. This experience influences Gow’s perception of the board’s commitment to free speech.

He calls for a public hearing to allow students, faculty, and staff to voice their opinions on what constitutes appropriate free speech, challenging the board’s apparent inconsistency.

Despite the upheaval, Gow plans to return to the classroom. However, his tenured faculty position is under review by the interim chancellor. Asked about concerns over his private hobby affecting his 17-year legacy, Gow expresses a desire to be remembered for promoting fearless exploration of truth, a sentiment aligned with the UW metaphor of “sifting and winnowing.”

As for the future of his films, Gow remains noncommittal, stating that at 63, he is uncertain about the direction his life will take. His history as a boundary-pusher suggests that the uncertainty surrounding his next steps is consistent with his character.

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Kay Adams

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