ON MULTIPLE OCCASIONS, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse made students at the University of Massachusetts, where he was a faculty member, feel uncomfortable by reaching out to them on social media to pursue a dating or sexual relationship, according to an independent investigation commissioned by UMass and released Wednesday. But the report found Morse did not violate university policies.
The investigation was conducted by the Boston office of the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr. It began after the UMass College Democrats notified Morse this August that they were disinviting him to future events because his conduct made students uncomfortable. Their letter to Morse, which was leaked publicly, was sent weeks before the Democratic primary in which Morse was challenging US Rep. Richard Neal. It quickly raised questions about the political motivations of the students as well as the involvement of Massachusetts Democratic Party officials. Because Morse is openly gay, the allegations also prompted questions by gay rights groups over whether he was treated differently because of his sexuality.
A separate investigation commissioned by the Democratic Party faulted party leaders for the way they handled the allegations in the midst of a contentious primary. The UMass investigation is the first public report on the allegations themselves. (Neal soundly defeated Morse in the September primary.)
Investigators concluded that Morse frequently pursued UMass students over dating apps and his conduct did make students uncomfortable. However, Morse did not violate the university’s sexual harassment policies, because there is no evidence he pursued relationships with students for whom he had any grading, supervisory, or employment relationship. There is no evidence he interfered with any student’s academic performance or ability to participate in school activities.
Investigators wrote that they will leave it to the university to determine whether Morse’s conduct conflicts with general expectations for university employees, even if it did not violate the letter of the law.
Morse said in light of the investigation’s findings, he is exploring his legal options. “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 said in a statement. “I hope this exoneration lays to rest the unnecessary and invasive intrusion into my personal life.”
Morse called it “unfortunate” that “the 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 said.
Morse, who has said he will not run for reelection when his term is up in November, did not cooperate with the investigation. The investigation was based on a review of documents and interviews with eight students. Another three students or alumni declined requests to be interviewed.
Morse has not taught at the school since the fall of 2019.
Morse was hired as a UMass adjunct faculty member in 2014, three years after he was first elected Holyoke mayor. Just 22 years old at the time of his election, Morse was Holyoke’s youngest mayor. He frequently participated in College Democrats-sponsored events.
According to the investigation, as early as 2015, students said it was an “open secret” that Morse matched with students on dating apps like Tinder, and set his profile to match with students as young as 18. Morse has admitted publicly to having consensual sexual relationships with students. One student, who did not agree to be interviewed, allegedly told another student that he had “matched” with Morse on Tinder while taking Morse’s class or soon after the class ended – but before the university implemented a policy against consensual sexual relations between students and faculty. Matching involves both people agreeing to communicate.
While multiple students said they found Morse’s conduct “weird,” given that Tinder is known as a hook-up site for people seeking sexual relationships, the review documented several interactions that did not escalate to sexual conduct. For example, in one case, a College Democrat who had appeared on a panel discussion with Morse exchanged several messages with Morse over Tinder but once the student reminded Morse how they first met, Morse unmatched with him. Morse was 30 and the student was 19.
The first reports of students feeling uncomfortable with Morse emerged in September 2019, after a College Democrats Western Massachusetts kick-off, where Morse followed and messaged at least four students in the days following the event, generally in ways that appeared social although not necessarily sexual, according to the report. That led student leaders to worry that Morse was using their events to meet students socially.
The report says that one of those students had an extended period of messaging with Morse and said he became uncomfortable and discontinued the conversation when Morse commented “cute costume!” on an Instagram photo of the student wearing a Halloween costume that the student considered sexually provocative.
That student shared Morse’s messages with a group of UMass Democrats board members and others, and their dialogue indicates that they saw Morse’s messages as suggestive of his intent to date or pursue a sexual relationship with the student. When friends asked the student why he wouldn’t pursue a relationship with Morse, the student replied he was attracted to Morse “for the clout” and would only be doing it “for political reasons,” according to a copy of the text messages included in the report.
By October, chats among students included in the report show that members of UMass Democratic groups were growing increasingly concerned about Morse’s behavior – concerns that escalated after another College Democrat event, following which Morse contacted three UMass students. One student said she knew of two UMass students who had sexual encounters with Morse, one of whom later felt uncomfortable about the encounter, but that student did not talk to investigators and her account could not be verified.
One series of texts between students, included in the report, has a student asking, “why does a progressive gotta be so creepy,” and another responding that they were going to ask Morse to work for his campaign “but hes so creepy.”
The UMass Democrats declined to advertise opportunities to intern for Morse. One female student and her boyfriend both followed Morse on social media to test whether he would follow both of them back. Morse only followed the boyfriend.
Over the summer, the college Democratic groups continued to hear anecdotes about students who were approached on social media by Morse. At the same time, some College Democrats continued to support Morse’s campaign and some were frustrated with the College Democrats’ lack of support for him, the report says.
Some College Democrats began speaking to the media off-the-record about Morse. As has previously been reported, the students talked to Democratic Party leaders and decided to go ahead with a letter disinviting Morse to future College Democrat events.
The report also finds that although one of the College Democrats who voiced concerns about Morse had hoped to work for Neal, there is no evidence that any student ever contacted Neal or his campaign about the allegations.
Investigators concluded that the messages they saw between Morse and the students were not sexual in nature, but social, with “get to know you” type questions and heart emojis. However, given his admitted history of sexual relations with students, his decision to only interact with men, and the fact that he was in a position of power, the report concluded that the messages could reasonably be interpreted as Morse seeking to date students. But the investigation found that there is no evidence Morse violated university policy – both because it is not clear if he had a supervisory role over any of the students he approached and because while he may have pursued sexual relationships, it did not find evidence that he actually engaged in them. (The investigators received only secondhand reports of sexual contact between Morse and students, and none of those students were in Morse’s class.)
Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesman for UMass Amherst, 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 Relationship Policy or the university’s Principles of Employee Conduct. The university also plans to re-examine its Consensual Relationships Policy, working with our union partners, to determine if revisions are appropriate.”