Humans of UWL: Chancellor Joe Gow

UWL Chancellor Joe Gow. Photo retrieved from

Morgan Hose, Executive Editor

“When I was your age, if you had said ‘You’re going to be chancellor of a university’, I would’ve said that’s preposterous. Truth be told when I was in college I wanted to play music,” said Gow.

Chancellor Joe Gow received his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in journalism from Penn State University (PA) in 1982. During his time at Penn State, Gow was the lead singer and guitarist in the band Johnny Deadline. He did all of the songwriting and arranging for the rock and roll band. Gow also wrote for Penn State’s newspaper, The Daily Collegian.

He then went on to earn his Master of Arts (M.A.) in speech communication from the University of Alabama in 1985. After that, Gow received his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in speech communication from Penn State in 1989. In addition to this, he also completed the Management Development Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 1998.

Now, Gow serves as the tenth chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and has since 2007.

“I do in my heart believe that we’re the top comprehensive institution in the system. Our enrollment is stronger than other campuses, we’ve done more projects than anyone else, and we’re a more diverse campus than back in ’07,” said Gow.

“When I started, there was not a Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs or a Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion. So, I think we made some really good changes in terms of the structure of the university,” said Gow. “It makes me really quite happy and proud when I see all the tour groups of people that came here and said they want to go here.”

“A lot of our faculty and staff went to school here, and they wanted to come back. We have been very successful in maintaining the quality,” said Gow.

In 2018, Gow was reprimanded for inviting an adult film actress, Nina Hartley, to come speak at UWL as part of Free Speech Week.

“I am more convinced than ever that it was an important thing to do. We’re coming up on the fifth-year anniversary of it and when I see all of these people out there saying ‘We value free speech’ well to some of them I want to say ‘Where were you then?’,” said Gow.

“You’ve got an element of our lives [sexuality] that’s important and you have somebody that has a very unique perspective on it that nobody else has, so let’s have the opportunity to hear what she has to say,” said Gow. “You don’t have to agree with it.”

“One of the things she said during the talk was ‘It’s okay to like porn. It’s okay to not like porn. It’s okay to not be sure’ but somebody just took the ‘it’s okay to like porn’ and that was the only version. It was fascinating to watch how the media covered that,” said Gow. “It’s okay to oppose, but then don’t say you’re for free speech. I don’t know how you can do that.”

Following Gow’s decision, the UW Board of Regents denied his performance raise. When asked about whether or not he regretted inviting Hartley, Gow said, “I had no idea there was going to be a salary cut from this. If I did, I’d be a hypocrite to say that I’m not going to do this. I’ve never been in this for the money, I get paid quite well and I am grateful for that, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. I wish they would’ve just criticized me and left it at that.”

In the past couple of years, UWL has seen a spike in free speech being expressed through chalking on campus sidewalks. Starting with the School of Education (SOE) chalking as a way of protesting and the latest College Republican chalking, students and faculty are engaging in discourse over the use of free speech on campus.

“What I’ve learned is it’s really interesting [the topic of chalking] because it’s so unique. There has been chalking done about me, I can handle that, it comes with the territory. When they attack other people who I think are trying to do a good job, I wonder if we have to have that on the sidewalk,” said Gow. “Would you want chalking on the sidewalk in front of your apartment or house? Probably not.”

“When the Constitution was written, they could never have imagined all of this. I will confess, I don’t have a lot of real clear answers, but nobody does,” said Gow.

Under former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, an in-state tuition freeze was instituted and lasted for a decade. This tuition freeze stemmed from the UW system containing a surplus of over $648 million. Now, as the 2023-2024 academic year approaches, that tuition freeze is expected to come to an end.

“I would hope that students look around at what happens at other schools around the nation and see that, typically, tuition’s gone up every year, but UWL didn’t do that, so now there is a need to raise it,” said Gow.

“I’m very big on reminding people that we take that extra money and put it right back into the university by hiring more faculty and staff to work with students. We want to make sure everyone gets the classes they need to graduate on time.”

Every year since 1961, around the end of September, La Crosse hosts its annual Oktoberfest. When asked how the university manages the student body during the festivities, Gow said, “I will admit that the administration has an ambivalence about it. We want people to have a good time and be safe. It’s why we don’t have homecoming, we couldn’t compete. We are trying to get people to not binge drink or do things that could lead to bad things, so it’s always a very nervous time,” said Gow. “In recent years, we’ve done pretty well, there haven’t been major incidents.”

“I think a lot of the challenge is college students from other places that come here and get really wild. They don’t have a sense that this is their neighborhood or their community. I think sometimes UWL gets unfairly criticized for incidents that have taken place.”

“Oktoberfest is a very important tradition for this community and I think our students are very good about not getting too out of hand,” said Gow.

In 2017, Gow did an interview with HER Campus where he was asked what goals he had for UWL in the next few years in which he mentioned the fieldhouse and renovation of Wittich Hall. Both of those projects have now been completed, and as the next goal for UWL, Gow said the biggest one is getting the state to approve the budget for phase II of Prairie Springs Science Center. “The other goal that I am always personally interested in is keeping enrollment strong and we do that very well,” said Gow.

“One of the great joys of my role is that I can walk around outside and talk to tour groups,” said Gow. “That’s why I am here and I think a real nice aspect of this is that we’re not so huge that we don’t know one another.”

When asked what the hardest part of being Chancellor is, Gow identified “The heaviest part of the job is when somebody passes away. When it’s a student, it’s really devastating, you can see the grief. I have no doubt about what matters, I go to the funerals and you can see what’s really important,” said Gow.

As for his hobbies, Gow enjoys playing the guitar and reading on his Kindle. Gow is currently reading the book “Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English” by Valerie Fridland and the book “This Band Has No Past: How Cheap Trick Became Cheap Trick” by Brian J. Kramp. Gow and his wife are also currently watching the television series Suits.

Gow has also been a vegan for around 30 years and enjoys eating at HuHot, as well as Kitchen Classics in the Student Union. “That is some of the best vegan food in the country. I love to get lunch on campus there.”

When asked what is one thing Gow wished UWL students knew about him, he said “At one time, I was just like you. I never saw this coming, and I think people need to see that getting your degree is just another chapter. Things will happen in your life that you don’t know. There will be really great things that happen and then there will be things that are tough.”

“Keep on going and celebrating the good things, don’t let the bad things hold you back,” said Gow.

When asked what piece of advice he has for students that are, or will, attend college at UWL, he said, “Take advantage of everything this university has to offer. There are so many great people here. Don’t spend all your time online, try some things that you are totally unfamiliar with.”