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Jan. 13, 2021

UMass weighs faculty-student relationships policy in wake of report on Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s conduct

AMHERST — Leaders of the University of Massachusetts Democrats and two other student-led Democratic organizations debated among themselves for close to a year whether to go public with concerns about the conduct of onetime lecturer and Holyoke Mayor Alex B. Morse in pursuing dates and sexual relationships with their membership, according to an investigator’s report issued Wednesday by the university.

It says Morse’s conduct had been an “open secret” on the Amherst campus as far back as 2015. But it did not land in the public eye until a month before the Democratic primary last summer in which Morse tried to unseat House Ways & Means Chairman Richard E. Neal.

While some of the UMass students found Morse’s conduct on the dating apps Tinder and picture-sharing app Instagram “weird” and “creepy,” the independent investigation concludes his actions did not violate any university policies, including its sexual harassment policy.

The university said the report is prompting a review of its consensual relationship policy for faculty members and its employee conduct rules.

“UMass Amherst officials are studying the report and will evaluate whether pursuit of dating or sexual relationships with students by a faculty member is in conflict with the Consensual Relationship Policy or the university’s Principles of Employee Conduct,” said spokesman Edward Blaguszewski in an email. “The university also plans to re-examine its Consensual Relationships Policy, working with our union partners, to determine if revisions are appropriate.”

The report and some of the exhibits it includes document some of the social media exchanges between Morse and students. It says the students who were made uncomfortable by Morse’s conduct cut off communication with him “based on their individual discomfort with the direction in which the messages appeared to be taking.”

States the report in one of its footnotes, “Witness One admits that his discomfort with Morse’s conduct stemmed from Morse’s status as an elected official rather than his position on the University’s faculty and points to the power imbalance created by Morse’s political influence as contributing to his sense that he had no choice but to respond to Morse’s messages.”

In a statement to The Republican, Morse characterized the report as an “exoneration.”

“As expected, the final investigative report issued by Saul Ewing confirms what I’ve said since this began: that I have never violated Title IX or any UMass employment policy. Any other speculation, rumors, or innuendo characterizing my interactions with students is an extraneous distraction, and outside the scope of the investigation,” Morse stated.

Title IX is a federal law that protects students from sex discrimination.

Morse added, “I hope this exoneration lays to rest the unnecessary and invasive intrusion into my personal life. It is unfortunate that this report’s obvious findings came at a cost of tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars amidst widespread cuts and layoffs at the University. Given the report’s favorable conclusions and given the professional, political, and personal impact of this investigation, I am exploring legal options with my attorney.”

Morse, 31, was 30 years old at the time of the communications detailed in the report. The recipients were as young as 19.

The report doesn’t name students and witnesses, instead assigning them numbers or letters.

“At least two members of the group, Students A and C voiced their discomfort, specifically because of the age difference between Witness One and Morse,” the report says. “Witness One did not share his friends’ discomfort initially, but he now reports that he became discomfited by the fact that his attraction to Morse stemmed from the ‘allure’ of Morse’s role as a Mayor, which Witness One considered a position of power.”

The report says the weight of the evidence also supports a finding that at least two students viewed Morse’s conduct as unwelcome.

“Having concluded that the preponderance of the evidence supports a finding that Morse communicated with students on social media in pursuit of dating or sexual relationships with students, the Investigators also conclude that Morse’s conduct was sexual in nature,” the report reads. “As detailed above, Morse’s messages, while not overtly sexual, when viewed in the light of his reputed and admitted history of engaging in dating and sexual relationships with students, could be and were reasonably interpreted by students to be suggestive of his intent to pursue such relationships here.”

Morse, according to the report, declined to answer questions on the advice of his attorney. He had earlier promised to cooperate with the university.

Among the findings from attorney Natashia Tidwell of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr:

  • Morse frequently communicated with students on social media in a manner reasonably interpreted by those students and others as suggestive of his intent to pursue dating or sexual relationships.
  • His pursuit of dating or sexual relationships with university students via social media did not violate the university’s policy on consensual relationships because Morse did not have grading, supervisory, advisory or employment responsibility for the students.
  • Morse’s pursuit of dating or sexual relationships with university students made a number of students uncomfortable and led to the UMass Democrats’ decision to disinvite him from future events. But Morse did not unreasonably interfere with any student’s academic performance or ability to participate in university programs or activities under the university’s sexual harassment policy.
  • Morse’s pursuit of dating or sexual relationships with university students may be inconsistent with the university’s principles of employee conduct.
  • The investigation also found no evidence that Neal, also a UMass lecturer, or his campaign had any involvement in the UMass Democrats’ response to Morse or in making those feelings public.
Tidwell didn’t return calls for comment Wednesday. Morse, who at first apologized for his behavior, only days later said he was the victim of a homophobic smear and dirty tricks from what he called the “Springfield political machine.” He continued his campaign and wound up losing to Neal by a 59% to 41% margin, including losing the vote in his hometown. He has announced he will not seek reelection as mayor this fall.

The 32-page report includes 91 pages of supplementary material and exhibits, including screen shots of messages shared by Morse with students.

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