UW System punishes La Crosse chancellor over free speech week invitation to adult film actress

Joe Gow’s bosses have done everything but draw him a diagram of how to clean out a desk and announce a resignation, but he’s hanging in there at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, still getting pelted with criticism for paying former porn actress Nina Hartley to speak on campus for Free Speech Week.

That went over about as big as you’d expect it to in the stuffy upper echelon of higher education.

Gow apologized — sort of — while blaming the media for making a big deal out of the speech. He’s repaid the discretionary account from which Hartley was paid.

In a letter to the La Crosse Tribune last week, UW System President Ray Cross defended his reprimand of Gow, insisting its not incompatible with the merits of free speech.

Chancellor Gow chose the topic, the speaker, and the campus venue without engaging in a substantive collaborative process involving students, faculty or staff.

Chancellor Gow says his personal invitation to Hartley was an attempt “to promote awareness of the University of Wisconsin System’s Commitment to Academic Freedom and Free Expression,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. If that is indeed the case, why did Chancellor Gow deliberately block widespread advance publicity of the event?

According to the La Crosse Tribune, the lecture did not appear on the university’s online events calendar nor was the media notified. Instead, the university promoted the event only through digital signs on campus. The Tribune quoted Gow saying, “There was concern, because it’s a controversial topic, that people would send this far and wide, and we’d get people who aren’t going to come, and they sensationalize it.”

The overall lack of judgment and awareness of his role is why Joe Gow deserved a reprimand.

The UW System didn’t stop there. Late last week, behind closed doors, it decided on pay raises for the system’s chancellors. Gow didn’t get one, the Tribune reports.

He will now be the lowest-paid chancellor while running the fifth-largest campus in the system. He is the longest-tenured of any chancellor. Enrollment in La Crosse has increased in nine of his 12 years.

Maybe it’s about process, but an op-ed in November from regent Bob Atwell suggests the blowback is very much about content.

Most of us really don’t know or don’t want to know what goes on in the Internet world of today. However awkward this experience, this may still become an occasion for the sifting and winnowing that is central to the Wisconsin Idea at the heart of our universities.

Pornography is a horrible hill on which to plant the flag of free expression.

That’s an odd observation, given that it’s the hill the U.S. Supreme Court planted its flag on, strengthening the protections of the First Amendment.

In the face of all of that, Gow is unbowed, becoming a sympathetic figure because of the obvious free speech issue, despite what the UW System bosses might claim.

“Things are going very well and what matters most to me is that I feel the faculty, staff and students know who I am and how dedicated I am to keeping our university strong,” Gow said in an interview Saturday with the Tribune. “That knowledge means far, far more to me than a pay increase, particularly right now.”

The more Gow’s bosses insist his punishments aren’t about free speech, the more obvious it becomes that it is.

In that vein, he’s providing his students with a more comprehensive education on free speech than Free Speech Week could ever hoped to have achieved.