UMass investigating allegations Alex Morse had sexual encounters with students while teaching there

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse speaks at City Hall, Jan. 6. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/9/2020 8:19:11 PM

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts is reviewing whether congressional hopeful and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s alleged inappropriate sexual behavior with college students during his time as a university lecturer was in violation of university policy or federal Title IX law.

The university’s announcement Saturday comes after three groups of college Democrats disavowed Morse in an email sent Thursday in which the students allege a “pattern of Morse using his platform and taking advantage of his position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students.”

The email — which was signed by the College Democrats of Massachusetts, the UMass Amherst Democrats and the Amherst College Democrats — accuses Morse, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in the Democratic primary in the state’s 1st Congressional District, of having “sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium.”

The email was sent to Morse and his campaign manager, Max Clermont.

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement that Morse is not a current UMass employee. He said Morse began teaching Urban Government and Politics an adjunct instructor during the fall 2014 semester, last teaching the course during the fall 2019 semester. Blaguszewski said the university has no plans to rehire Morse.

The students’ email did not specifically accuse Morse of having sexual relations with students in his own class.

“Numerous incidents over the course of several years have shown that it is no longer appropriate to encourage interaction between College Democrats and Alex Morse,” reads the students’ email, which was provided to the Gazette by a person within one of the student organizations.

Morse sent a response to the groups Thursday, which was also obtained by the Gazette, in which he wrote, “I want to be clear that every relationship I’ve had has been consensual. However, I also recognize that I have to be cognizant of my position of power.

“Growing up gay and closeted in a small city like Holyoke, I struggled with accepting my sexuality, and in high school, I had a hard time finding other openly gay students. As I’ve become more comfortable with myself and my sexuality, like any young, single, openly gay man, I have had consensual adult relationships, including some with college students,” he continued. “Navigating life as both a young gay man and an elected official can be difficult, but that doesn’t excuse poor judgment. That’s why I want to sincerely apologize to anyone I have made feel uncomfortable.”

The correspondence between Morse and the college Democrat groups was first reported by The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the student-run newspaper of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Morse’s congressional campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.

In the statement, Blaguszewski called the alleged behavior between Morse and UMass students “serious and deeply concerning.” He said UMass has reached out to students to provide resources and support, and that the university was previously unaware of the concerns brought forward by members of the College Democrats.

In 2018, UMass for the first time unveiled a policy barring consensual sexual relationships between university faculty and students or postdoctoral researchers for whom the faculty has supervisory responsibilities. Blaguszewski said this policy notes that such relationships are “inherently problematic” because of the “unequal power dynamic between the parties to the relationship, the responsibility of faculty for evaluating students’ work, the possibility that other faculty and students may be adversely affected, and because such relationships diminish the trust and respect that ordinarily characterize the faculty-student relationship and are therefore inconsistent with the educational mission of the university.”

In the email sent to Morse, the student groups allege that in addition to having “sexual contact” with college students, Morse had his dating app age minimums set to 18, thus “regularly matching with college students.” The groups also allege Morse used college Democratic events to meet students and add them on Instagram, “adding students to his ‘Close Friends Story’ and direct messaging members of College Democrats on Instagram in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status.”

“These behaviors represent a trend that has continued for years,” the email charged.

The email said the groups have heard “first-hand accounts of students having sexual encounters with Morse,” with at least one student having sexual encounters with Morse “before finding out that he is a Mayor and a lecturer at UMass Amherst, and they felt uncomfortable after uncovering this information.”

The email says that even if the encounters were consensual, Morse’s alleged pattern of taking advantage of his position of power for romantic or sexual gain “is unacceptable.”

“Our organizations feel that it is incumbent upon us to call out inappropriate behavior regardless of party affiliation or political ideology,” the students’ email to Morse reads. “Morse will no longer be welcome at our events and our organizations will be completely disaffiliating from Morse.”

The UMass Amherst Democrats declined to comment for this story.

The race between Morse, 31, and Neal, 71, is one that has gained national attention as yet another example of young candidates running to the left of incumbent Democrats.

Neal was first elected to the House in 1988 and currently holds the powerful position of chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Morse became the mayor of Holyoke in 2012, when as a recent college graduate he became the youngest and first openly gay mayor in the city’s history.

This election cycle, Morse has been backed by Justice Democrats, the group that helped progressive challengers such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and Jamaal Bowman in 2020, both of New York, beat Democratic incumbents in primaries. Neal has been endorsed by many leading Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Northampton, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the late civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Hampshire County cities and towns in the 1st Congressional District are Easthampton, Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Middlefield, Plainfield, South Hadley, Southampton, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington. The district also includes all of Berkshire County, all of Hampden County except for one precinct in Palmer, and parts of Franklin and Worcester counties.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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