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Jan. 12, 2021

UMass report critical of Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse for pursuing student relationships, sources say

AMHERST — The results of a four-month investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct by Holyoke Mayor and former congressional candidate Alex B. Morse involving college students is expected to be released Wednesday.

Sources familiar with the report’s findings say it is critical of the 31-year-old Morse, a onetime lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for using dating apps to aggressively pursue dates and sexual relationships with students.

The report, prepared by a Boston law firm at the request of UMass, notes Morse didn’t violate any UMass policy then in place, but it recommends the university tighten its rules concerning faculty-student relationships, according to the sources.

The investigation also found no evidence U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, played any role in revelations of Morse’ behavior. The allegations surfaced early in August during the final weeks of the congressional primary campaign in which Morse challenged Neal.

Morse is said to have not answered questions posed during the investigation conducted by attorney Natashia Tidwell, a partner at the Boston law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr. At the time UMass announced plans for the independent and comprehensive review, Morse said he would fully cooperate with any investigation.

Efforts to reach Morse on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The allegations were brought to light when the UMass student-run newspaper, The Daily Collegian, reported the Massachusetts College Democrats and its chapters had sent Morse a letter saying his communications with UMass College Democrats members over dating apps made some members uncomfortable and disinviting him from future events. Morse had influence both as an instructor, as a local mayor and as a standard bearer of regional progressive politics.

Morse initially acknowledged his actions might have been misconstrued and he needed to be more aware of the power dynamic. However, he said his relationships were consensual and did not violate school policies.

Within days, however, Morse announced he would stay in the race and proceeded to blame Neal and his campaign for the letter, claiming he was a victim on what Morse called the “Springfield political machine.” Morse also described the accusations as homophobic.

Morse came out while in high school. He returned to Holyoke while still a senior at Brown University to run for, and win, the office of mayor in his hometown.

A Morse supporter, who was a member of the UMass Democrats, has said one student behind the allegations was a Neal supporter and that the student hoped to get a job with Neal.

Hayley Fleming, an Amherst College student who was president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts, said at the time in a message to membership that there were several students who brought forth concerns. Fleming said the College Democrats won’t share individual stories out of concern for their safety.

A separate inquiry prepared by the Massachusetts Democratic Committee also contains excerpts from interviews with members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts. They told the state committee that college students had been pushing for a “public statement ... for years” on Morse’s practice of “flirting” with and “trolling” young men online after meeting them through campus events.

At least four members of area college Democratic clubs told an investigator hired by the Democrats that Morse had engaged with them on social media, sending heart emojis to one student and sending a “provocative” message over a Halloween costume to another, according to the report to the Democrats.

That report also said that Democratic state Chairman Gus Bickford and Executive Director Veronica Martinez violated a key committee bylaw, interfering in the primary when they advised members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts on how to handle allegations

Morse is not a current UMass employee and wasn’t on the payroll there when the letter came to light. He previously served as an adjunct instructor in urban government and politics from 2014 through fall 2019.

UMass rules don’t ban all romantic relationships between faculty and students, but such relationships are “strongly discouraged.” The only relationships that are banned are those where the faculty member has direct involvement with the student’s instruction, evaluation, advising, grading or employment.

Neal handily won reelection by a 59% to 41% margin — nearly 25,000 votes, including a more than 400-vote win for the congressman in Holyoke.

MassLive story source
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