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UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow greets UW System president Ray Cross

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow greets UW System President Ray Cross before a Board of Regents meeting last month where they denied Gow a raise.

Nearly three-fourths of the emails sent to the UW-La Crosse chancellor in the month after a porn star spoke to students as part of the university’s Free Speech week expressed support for the chancellor’s speaker selection.

That’s according to the nearly four dozen emails obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal through the state’s open records law regarding an episode that attracted national media attention, led to a letter of reprimand from University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross, prompted an audit of Chancellor Joe Gow’s office’s discretionary fund and denied him a pay raise.

An email Gow sent to porn star and sex educator Nina Hartley three days after receiving Cross’ letter scolding him for exercising “poor judgment” reflects just how much he stands by his invitation.

“This is without a doubt the most original and thought-provoking presentation I’ve seen in my 12 years at our university,” Gow wrote to Hartley on Nov. 9.

Hartley delivered an optional lecture titled “Fantasy versus reality: Viewing adult media with a critical eye” to a reported 75 attendees on campus Nov. 1. Her lecture sparked about half a dozen op-eds in the La Crosse Tribune, including one by Gow, and headlines from national media.

Included among the 200 pages of documents released to the State Journal is a terse note Cross wrote to Gow in the days after the media attention.

“I just received a copy of your Op Ed (you didn’t share it, others did) — I am not pleased. Your defense of your actions is just makes things worse,” Cross wrote.

On Nov. 11, Gow issued an apology for “the sensationalistic media attention (UW-La Crosse) has received as a result of a speaker I brought to campus.” The statement did not apologize for inviting the speaker.

Cross, who received the statement in advance of its release, told Gow that he was “comfortable” with the message, according to a newly released email.

Emails, calls, texts

Gow received emails related to Hartley from nearly 50 individuals, including students, staff, faculty, alumni, a former Regent, and an emeritus dean of UW-Madison’s College of Letters and Science in the month after the Nov. 1 speech.

Of those, 33 messages expressed support for Gow’s invitation to Hartley and 13 came from disappointed or outraged individuals who used subject lines such as “disappointed alumni” and self-descriptions such as “irate taxpayer.”

Other comments came through different types of communication. Jane Morgan, UW-La Crosse director of alumni relations, sent a note to Gow informing him that she received calls and text messages from concerned alumni that were not represented in the university’s records release.

Morgan forwarded a note to Gow from alumnus Andy Ellingson, who wrote: “Rest assured your association won’t get a dime from me. I could win the Powerball and I wouldn’t give (UW-La Crosse) a dime.”

Another angry alumna, Sharon, whose last name was withheld, wrote that she would stop donating to the university after 27 years of doing so.

But the majority of email senders stood behind Gow.

A UW-La Crosse student whose name was withheld wrote that she transferred to the campus last spring and Gow’s invitation reinforced that it was the right decision for her.

University library services assistant Liz Bass wrote along those same lines: “Porn is pervasive in our society via the Internet, and to not shine a light on it through open, rational discussion means it remains in the dark, secreted away to be manifest in unhealthy and often injurious ways. Thank you for trying to bring this darkness into the light.”

Alumnus Matthew Dockter acknowledged he personally wouldn’t be interested in listening to Hartley speak, but applauded Gow for providing a forum for someone outside the mainstream.

“That’s the Wisconsin Idea in action,” he wrote.

Three others asked for Gow’s resignation.

“I am seeing these snowflakes graduate with a head full of mush, heavily indoctrinated with garbage about socialism and liberal thought,” Alumnus Chris Mikula wrote. “If (UW-La Crosse) is suppose to be an institution of higher learning where varying ideas and views can be shared, then why not invite someone like a Ben Shapiro to speak on campus? … Explain to me how a porn star is helping these students build resumes and better their interviewing skills.”

Shapiro’s appearance on another UW campus, along with other conservative speakers interrupted by protesters at college campuses across the country, led the UW System Board of Regents to pass a free speech policy in the fall of 2017.

Gow invited Hartley as part of the university’s inaugural Free Speech week, which he created in response to a July 2018 memo from Cross encouraging chancellors to find ways to encourage and protect free speech. One of the memo’s suggestions was to hold a Free Speech week.

Gow personally reimbursed the $5,000 speaker’s fee amid the public outcry. The fee initially came out of his office’s discretionary fund, which is supported by interest earnings and vending machine revenue.

UW System spokeswoman Heather LaRoi said Friday the auditors are still conducting the review of Gow’s discretionary fund.

Another speaker

The campus speaker controversy at UW-La Crosse will likely continue in the spring semester when an anti-pornography group speaks in late February.

Gow initially announced he would bring Fight the New Drug as a counter-speaker to Hartley. He then found out a Christian student group known as Cru had already received $2,400 from the university’s student government earlier last fall to bring the group to campus.

Luke Rickert, Cru’s La Crosse area director, characterized Fight the New Drug as a nonreligous, nonpolitical group that will speak at the campus’ student union at 8 p.m. Feb. 7.

“With the epidemic of pornography plaguing the college scene, we’re trying to address that in a way that would not only speak to those of Christian faith, but also those of a non-Christian faith who are wrestling with the effects of pornography,” Rickert said.

Rickert said he expects more than 75 people to attend, in part, because the group plans to promote it, unlike Hartley’s speech, which Gow decided not to include on the university’s events calendar nor to publicize to media outlets.

Emails show several people have already reached out to Gow unhappy with the speaker selection.

“Fight the New Drug relies on research that is not backed by credible science,” assistant professor Elizabeth Humrickhouse wrote to Gow.

Humrickhouse pointed Gow toward a letter written by eight neuroscientists and one psychophysiologist who said Fight the New Drug is “systematically misrepresenting science” and disregards the scientific method.

Gow wrote back: “It appears that this organization is not without controversy, and this makes me all the more eager to hear what they have to say.”

Gow said in an interview that Fight the New Drug was just another example of the importance of free speech. He encouraged people with concerns about the group to attend the voluntary event. He also lamented that he would be unable to attend because of a Regents meeting scheduled in Madison the same day.

“Listen critically, ask good questions, make up your mind — that’s what we’re here to do as a university,” he said.

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Kelly Meyerhofer covers higher education for the Wisconsin State Journal. She can be reached at 608-252-6106 or kmeyerhofer@madison.com.