Morse accused of inappropriate relationships with students while teaching

Aug. 11, 2020 | Danielle Eaton

AMHERST – Congressional candidate and Mayor of Holyoke Alex Morse was accused of abusing his power to engage in relationships with students while teaching a political science course at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst.

The accusations made by the College Democrats of Massachusetts came to light first in an article published by the campus newspaper, The Daily Collegian, on Aug. 7. The article said the allegations are based on “three issues” that had been addressed in a letter sent by members of the organization to Morse in a private email. The Daily Collegian said the letter alleged that “Morse regularly matched with students on dating apps, including Tinder and Grindr, who were as young as 18 years old,” and “having sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he teaches, and the greater Five College Consortium.” Additionally, the article alleged that Morse was “using College Democrats events to meet college students and add them on Instagram, adding them to his ‘Close Friends’ story and [direct messaging] them, both of which have made young college students uncomfortable.”

UMass released a statement the next day on Aug. 8, which said the university was “previously unaware of the concerns brought forward by the members of the College Democrats.” The university also confirmed that Morse had served as an adjunct professor, but “is not a current UMass employee.” Morse taught a course titled Urban Government and Politics at the university during the fall of 2014, fall and spring of 2015, fall of 2016, spring of 2017, spring of 2018, and spring and fall of 2019. Additionally, UMass said there were “no plans to rehire Morse.”

The university’s statement called the allegations outlined in the Daily Collegian “serious and deeply concerning.”

The statement read, in part, “The allegations that Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse engaged in inappropriate behavior with UMass Amherst students are serious and deeply concerning, and the university is launching an immediate review of the matter to determine whether the alleged actions during his time as a university lecturer were in violation of university policy or federal Title IX law.”

The university said “faculty are prohibited from entering into a sexual relationship with any student or post-doc for whom the faculty member has any responsibility for supervision, evaluation, grading, advising, employment, or other instructional or supervisory activity.”

This, they said, was largely due to the complicated nature these relationships can often have. It said, in part, “The university’s policy on consensual relationships between faculty and students notes that dating or sexual relationships between faculty and students or post-docs 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.”

Morse released a statement on Aug. 9 via social media. In the statement, he emphasized that every relationship he’d ever had, had been consensual and that he had never used his position of power for gain in relationships, both professional and personal. “I want to be very clear about this. I have never, in my entire life, had a non-consensual sexual encounter with anyone. I have never used my position of power as mayor and UMass lecturer for romantic or sexual gain, or to take advantage of students,” Morse said. He continued, “I have never violated UMass policy. Any claim to the contrary is false. As I’ve acknowledged, I have had consensual relationships with other men, including students enrolled at local universities that I’ve met using dating apps.”

Morse said he was “confident that a full investigation into these matters will clear my name completely of unethical conduct,” however, he recognized that his interactions may have made some students feel uncomfortable. “I am sorry for that. This is unacceptable behavior for anyone with institutional power,” he said.

He called it “unfortunate” that the allegations surfaced just three weeks before the Massachusetts state primary election is set to take place, “because there isn’t enough time for UMass to conduct an independent review before the people of this district vote on Sept. 1.”

He thanked those who had reached out to him and offered support and encouragement in the days since the allegations came to light, and said it was clear to both him and members of the LGBTQ community “that these recent events, and the language used in response, aren’t just an attack on me, but on all of us.” He said, “You’re genuinely outraged, as I am, by the invocation of age-old anti-gay stereotypes. You have reminded me that we’ve come too far to turn back. I want my freedom, and I want you to have yours, too.”

Morse said he planned to continue on with the campaign, while being “mindful of the fact that my personal life – and my consensual sexual activity – will be subject to scrutiny and fixation that are all too familiar to other members of the LGBTQ community.” He said while he wasn’t saying this to “shirk responsibility for having made anyone uncomfortable,” he said he felt he was “being held to a different standard, one deeply connected to a history of surveilling the lives of people like me.”

In a statement released on social media on Aug. 9, the College Democrats of Massachusetts said the letter had been sent privately to Morse via email “informing him that he would no longer be welcome at our events” the week prior to the article. The letter, they said, “was co-written by the UMass Amherst Democrats and the Amherst College Democrats.”

The statement said, “The letter laid out the specific ways in which Mayor Morse has made students uncomfortable and abused his power for sexual relationships.” The organization pushed back on Morse’s claim that he was being scrutinized for his relationships due to his sexuality. “To suggest that our decision to send the letter to Mayor Morse had anything to do with Mayor Morse’s sexuality is untrue, disingenuous and harmful. Many of the people involved in writing our letter to the Morse Campaign are members of the LGBTQ+ community themselves,” they said. “Our goal was, and still is, to hold the mayor accountable for his actions, and to protect our members from advances many have said made them uncomfortable – hence our decision to disinvite him from our events.”

The organization also said the claims that sending the letter “had anything to do with political donations we have received is untrue.” The group explained that during the 2019-2020 school year, they had received a $1,000 donation from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s campaign, but had also received $1,500 from U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy’s campaign, $1,200 from Sen. Ed Markey, along with several other candidates and representatives running for Congress in the 4th Congressional district. The money, they said, “funds our events, provides scholarships to students completing unpaid internships, and provides grants to individual College Democrats chapters, among other things.”

“To suggest that our decision to send the letter to Mayor Morse was a quid pro quo with Rep. Neal, his campaign, or anyone else is untrue, disingenuous, and harmful,” they said. “We do not donate to political candidates. No candidate, elected official, or staffer for Rep. Neal or Mayor Morse had any role in drafting our letter.”

The group said that in his response to them, “Mayor Morse did not deny any of these allegations.” They said Morse “ specifically admitted to sleeping with college students.”

“While he admitted to these actions, he did not fully acknowledge the harm that he had caused, nor did he indicate that he fully understood why his actions were wrong,” they said.

Holyoke City Councilor for Ward 5, Linda Vacon, also condemned Morse’s actions. In a statement to Reminder Publishing, she said, “My perspective on this situation with Mayor (and School Committee Chairman) Morse is the same as it would be if the actions took place between a 31-year-old man and [an] 18-year-old female students in the school where the person taught.”

Such a situation, she said, would have led to Morse being “fired due to the unethical abuse of power that exists in a teacher-student relationship.” Vacon said while Morse was teaching at UMass, he was serving as mayor of Holyoke, “therefore his actions at the school carry over to Holyoke where he serves as the CEO.”

“Many CEOs have stepped down in the face of similar allegations that they denied. In this case the Mayor states he has conducted the actions that the students have claimed,” she said. “So this raises questions about his conduct while in a position of authority with control over the employment of city employees as well.”

This, she explained, was why she was calling for Morse’s resignation as mayor of Holyoke and an outside investigation. “If the mayor, seen as a role model for young progressives is able to continue as though nothing wrong has occurred, it will teach the students who have come forth, a very chilling lesson; do not challenge the power structure. In the context of the “me too” movement, inaction will stand out sharply for its hypocrisy,” she said.

Additionally, Vacon echoed what College Democrats of Massachusetts said and emphasized that her position had nothing to do with Morse’s sexual orientation. “To be sure, this is not about gay stereotypes, but this is about age-old domination by those in power toward others who have little to none,” she said. Also calling for Morse’s resignation is Holyoke City Councilor At Large, Michael Sullivan. Reminder Publishing reached out to Sullivan for comment, but had not received a statement at time of press.

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