Talking leadership 31: Joe Gow on creating a student-focused campus

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse chancellor discusses the importance of role models for students, his approach to hiring top staff and how he has stayed in the role for 15 years

June 21, 2022
Joe Gow, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Source: University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

For Joe Gow, of the thousands of students who have graduated under his watch since he became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2007, one stands out.

“Very memorably, there was a student a few years ago who had a diagnosis of terminal cancer,” he says.

“I knew her personally from some class visits, and I said to her: ‘Is there anything you want to do?’ She said, ‘I would love to receive my degree.’ She was close enough that we could give her a degree and have her on stage with her parents.” His voice falters. “I’m getting a little emotional here because it was quite a moment to have that happen and celebrate that, and then she did pass away. These are the kinds of things that really matter, I believe.”

Gow adds: “I sometimes say to people, ‘I will cry at funerals, and I will cry over things involving people. I will not cry over “oh, somebody didn’t get elected” or “the budget got cut”.’ It’s all what you value.”

There is no doubt that Gow values the community at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, which is home to about 10,000 students (mostly undergraduates) and 1,200 staff and academics. In his 15 years at the helm – he is the longest-serving chancellor in the University of Wisconsin system – he has made significant structural and personnel changes in a drive for the institution to become more student-focused and inclusive.

The first came in 2008, when he created a division of student affairs – a remit that was previously tucked into the provost’s large portfolio. A decade later, he created a division of diversity and inclusion, to better coordinate and broaden the various activities taking place in that area. The latest shift was made last August, when admissions was moved from academic affairs to student affairs, partly in a bid for admissions to be “even more collaborative with student life and diversity and inclusion”.

Gow says the answer to making the changes work has been appointing the right people to lead those three areas.

“There’s an old adage from Silicon Valley: ‘A’ players hire other ‘A’ players; ‘B’ players tend to hire ‘C’ players. The point of that is make sure you’re bringing in the best, most talented, motivated people you can find. And I guess if I’ve done anything that has made us successful it’s to do that, to consistently get great people and support the work they do in those roles.”

Hiring mentors

By Gow’s own admission, La Crosse is not the most renowned university in the state’s public university system.  

“When you hear the phrase ‘University of Wisconsin’, most people think of the Madison campus as the flagship – [it’s a] world-famous and extraordinary research institution [with] Division 1 athletics, that kind of thing,” he says.

“We’ve never aspired to be that – we’re very happy with who we are, which is we provide that quality education that is associated with the University of Wisconsin, but we do it in a very personalised, student-centred, highly individualistic way. By that I mean we expect our staff, our faculty, our administrators even, to be mentors and role models for the students.”

As a result, whenever someone is applying for a job at the institution, “the key is getting them to campus and spending some time [with them] and making sure they have the kind of values that are what we’re all about”, Gow says.

“Being a state-supported institution, we sometimes don’t have the ability to pay compensation that is very competitive, frankly. And so we have to work very hard to make people see that, OK, the pay’s all right but the work that you will do will be very fulfilling and you will have great freedom in doing it,” he says. “I look at my role as to really try to create an environment that just makes people excited about coming here every day and being a part of it.”

The university often ends up hiring staff who are alumni and “want to come back and be a part of the institution that was so formative in their own development”, he adds.

Gow says the measure of success that best proves that the structural and personnel changes are working is student enrolment, which is growing year by year. The share of students staying at the institution until graduation is also consistently in the high 80s, he adds.

However, Gow admits that there is still more work to be done on diversifying the student body.

“We have made progress, but we’re not really where we need to be, which is we would like to mirror the demographics of the state of Wisconsin. We’re a little behind that,” he says.

One of the priorities is to do more outreach work in the major urban areas of the state and the region and ensure that it is easy for potential students to visit the institution, which is situated on Wisconsin’s western border.

“We recently made a bus available to folks in Milwaukee to come and spend a day with us, and that was well attended, so those are things we’re always trying to do,” Gow explains.

Other diversity initiatives are less practical and more symbolic. In April, the university announced that it will rename its arts centre after the Native American artist Truman Lowe, an alumnus of the institution.

Path to leadership

Gow did not set out to become a university leader. The journalism and speech communication expert wanted to be a professor and “just focus on the classroom”. But when he was an assistant professor at Alfred University in upstate New York, he had the opportunity to be the director of the communication studies programme and “thought maybe I’ll give it a try”.  

His approach to that role was informed by his experiences of playing the guitar in bands and ensembles since he was young.

“You might have a guitar player who wants to do it this way and a drummer wants to do it that way. I was very accustomed to being something of a mediator and saying, ‘Hey, why don’t we take what you want to contribute and add that to part of what the other person wants to contribute, and we’ll come up with something even greater than any of us could do on our own?’” he says.

“And so when I got into the small leadership role, I applied that kind of perspective and thought this is really fun and fulfilling. That led me to seek out bigger challenges and opportunities.”

Gow enrolled in a management development programme at Harvard University to hone his leadership skills and learn about his leadership style, an experience he describes as “invigorating”. This meant that when the chance to be interim president of Nebraska Wesleyan University, a small institution of about 2,000 students, unexpectedly arose a few years later, he was “ready and eager” to take on the challenge. The following year, he got the chancellor job at La Crosse.

It was his experience at Nebraska Wesleyan that, in part, convinced him that student affairs needed its own division and leader at La Crosse – somebody who would talk to the chancellor on a regular basis and make sure that “I’m apprised of serious issues and I can help support that great work”.

He was also influenced by facing the shock and tragedy of student deaths at several institutions.

“When I came here, I said we really need to be sure that our student affairs folks are supported and visible because sooner or later that is going to happen, there will be a tragedy, and they will take the lead on it. Sure enough, that has been the case, unfortunately, several times over the years,” he says.

However, Gow is keen to point out that many of the initiatives introduced during his tenure have not been his ideas.

“I believe that what you do as a leader is to look at what are the things that people really want to do and what are they excited about doing and [ask] can we make those happen,” he says. “There’s a philosopher, Lao-tzu, from thousands of years ago who said: ‘Plan with the people, listen to the people and of the best leaders, when the thing is done, the people will say we did it ourselves’. And I have found that to be really true.”

Running a university ‘his own way’

Gow has been in the top job at La Crosse longer than most university leaders, and data suggest that the tenures of these positions are only getting shorter. The American Council on Education’s latest American College President Study, which was published in 2017, found that US university leaders had been in their current job for an average of six and a half years in 2016, down from seven years in 2011 and eight and a half in 2006.

How has Gow managed to stay in the role for 15 years?

“I guess it has involved finding somewhere that I’ve been able to lead in the style that is most comfortable to me. When you have that, it’s hard to want to be anywhere else,” he says.

“It’s not always perfect; we are in a state system that is linked into the political structure and that can have its challenges…But on the whole, I have been very fortunate to be able to do this in my way.”

One such challenge occurred in 2018, when Gow invited porn star-turned-sex educator Nina Hartley to speak on campus; the university system president at the time, Ray Cross, claimed in a letter that the event “puts all of our funding at risk” given the potential pushback from politicians opposed to pornography. A month later, Gow missed out on a pay rise.

Gow issued an apology for inviting Hartley and personally reimbursed the university for her $5,000 (£3,925) speaking fee, but he told Times Higher Education in 2019 that he was only “sorry about the media sensationalism” and not about his choice of speaker.

He reiterates that view today. “We’ve had a very wide spectrum of speakers, and I am very proud of our free speech tradition and have no regrets about taking a lead on that.”

At the beginning of this month, a new University of Wisconsin system president took office – Jay Rothman, formerly CEO of Foley & Lardner LLP, the largest law firm in the state.

“I have had great meetings with him, and he really understands what we’re here to do,” Gow says. “And being somebody that is not an academic, he asks a lot of interesting questions.”

Gow doesn’t have plans to retire as chancellor any time soon, but when the time comes he says that he’ll “feel very good about what we’ve been able to accomplish at this university”.

“I will look back and have great pride on those moments when people talked about ideas and dreams, and I was able to say, ‘All right, let’s get the right people together and have that happen.’”

Quick facts

Born: Newark, New York, 11 October 1960

Academic qualifications: BA in journalism from Penn State; MA in speech communication from the University of Alabama; PhD in speech communication from Penn State

Lives with: He has a “commuter marriage” with his spouse, Carmen Wilson, who is vice-president for academic affairs at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York

Academic hero: His maternal grandmother, Sadie Durnin. "She taught successfully for many years in a public high school while raising four daughters as a single mum."

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles