UMass releases report on Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s conduct with university students


Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2021

AMHERST — Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse pursued dating or sexual relationships with University of Massachusetts students using social media, but these actions while he was an adjunct professor did not violate UMass sexual harassment policy or its policy on consensual relations, according to an investigative report released Wednesday by a private law firm.

Students interviewed said they were uncomfortable with Morse’s actions, which caused the UMass Democrats and other organizations to disinvite him from future events last summer when he was challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, in the Democratic primary in the state’s 1st Congressional District. However, the report states that Morse did not unreasonably interfere with any students’ academic performance or ability to participate in university programs or activities under its sexual harassment policy.

These are the key findings from Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, LLP of Boston, the law firm UMass hired to investigate allegations of misconduct against Morse during his tenure as adjunct instructor of Urban Government and Policies in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences beginning in 2014 and lasting through the fall semester 2019.

In a statement Wednesday, Morse wrote that the final investigative report exonerates his actions and also confirms that his earlier comments that he has never violated federal Title IX or any UMass employment policy is accurate.

“Any other speculation, rumors, or innuendo characterizing my interactions with students is an extraneous distraction, and outside the scope of the investigation,” Morse said. “I hope this exoneration lays to rest the unnecessary and invasive intrusion into my personal life.”

College Democrats of Massachusetts, UMass Democrats and Amherst College Democrats last Aug. 6 notified Morse that it was no longer appropriate to encourage interactions with him because of 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 law firm interviewed eight witnesses by videoconference, all but one were UMass students who are part of the Democratic organizations. Morse was not interviewed.

“While the totality of Morse’s conduct, including his admitted consensual relationships with students he met using dating apps, supports a finding that Morse intended to pursue dating and sexual relationships with UMass Democrats members and other students, the investigators found that there is insufficient evidence of Morse having engaged in such conduct with students for whom he had grading, supervisory, advisory or employment responsibility as is required by the university’s Policy on Consensual Relationships,” the report states.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said 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 Relationships Policy or the university’s Principles of Employee Conduct.

Blaguszewski added that the university also plans to re-examine its Consensual Relationships Policy by working with the unions to determine if revisions are appropriate.

In his statement, Morse also criticized the need for the investigation and its cost.

“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,” he said.

The cost of hiring the law firm was not immediately available from UMass.

Morse indicated that legal action is possible, stating that “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.”

Peter Panos, spokesman for the Neal campaign, wrote in an email that the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, appreciates the findings.

“This report confirms what Chairman Neal has always said, that he and his staff had nothing to do with these allegations,” Panos wrote. “We commend the university for their thorough investigation into the facts.”

The report for the university follows an investigation completed in November on behalf of the Democratic State Committee that found the Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford broke party rules against interfering in a contested primary election by encouraging UMass students to send a letter to Morse raising sexual misconduct accusations against him.

Former state senator Cheryl Jacques of Northampton handled the report concluding that state committee staff did not initiate the idea of college Democrats writing a letter to Morse, but that Bickford encouraged students to send the letter before the election and to talk about the accusations with a Politico reporter. These actions, Jacques concluded, broke a party bylaw about participating in a primary contest.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.