Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who is running to replace US Representative Richard Neal in a hotly contested primary race, faces an investigation by the University of Massachusetts Amherst following allegations that Morse used his position to foster inappropriate relationships with students over the course of several years.
The university is launching an immediate review to determine whether Morse, now in his fourth term as Holyoke’s mayor, violated university policy or federal Title IX law during his time as an adjunct instructor, the school said in a statement Saturday.
Student Democratic activists on Thursday notified the 31-year-old Holyoke mayor and his campaign manager that Morse is no longer welcome at events held by the College Democrats of Massachusetts, UMass Amherst Democrats, and Amherst College Democrats.
Numerous incidents over the course of several years “have shown that it is no longer appropriate to encourage interaction” between Morse and the College Democrats, according to a copy of the letter from the College Democrats provided to the Globe. The letter alleged that Morse had sexual contact with college students, including at UMass Amherst, where he taught for several semesters.
“Many young people around the state and around the country, especially those involved in College Democrats, view Morse as a role model, which renders it unacceptable for Morse to routinely make sexual or romantic advances, whether implicitly or explicitly,” the letter said.
The allegations were first reported Friday by the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.
The letter alleged that Morse used dating apps to regularly match with college students, and used College Democrats events to add students to his Instagram account and contact them directly.
“We have heard countless stories of Morse 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,” according to the letter.
UMass Amherst, where Morse has served as an adjunct instructor, called the allegations against the mayor “serious and deeply concerning” in its statement Saturday.
“The university has reached out to students to provide them resources and support,” the statement said. “UMass was previously unaware of the concerns brought forward by the members of the College Democrats.”
Morse did not immediately respond to requests for comment left on his cellphone or through a campaign spokesman Saturday.
Mike Bloomberg, chief of staff to Morse as Holyoke’s mayor, directed comment Saturday to Morse’s campaign.
“The Mayor will address these allegations levied against his personal life/actions via his campaign account,” Bloomberg said in an e-mail.
Morse was first elected in 2011 to become his hometown’s mayor at age 22, just months after graduating from Brown University, and the staunch progressive was among the first of the state’s openly gay mayors. He was last re-elected in 2017.
In a statement to MassLive Friday, Morse wrote he has been in adult relationships, including some with college students, and every relationship was consensual. He said he also recognized he has to be cognizant of his position of power.
Morse said in the statement he is committed to meeting with any person or group, including the College Democrats, to answer any questions and address any concerns.
“Navigating life as both a young gay man and an elected official can be difficult, but that doesn’t excuse poor judgment,” Morse said. “That’s why I want to sincerely apologize to anyone I have made feel uncomfortable.”
Morse launched his primary campaign against the 71-year-old Neal more than a year ago to replace the longtime congressman in the state’s First District.
Kate Norton, a Neal campaign spokeswoman, declined to comment Saturday.
Morse has had the backing of national progressives in the race, including the Justice Democrats, the organization that supported Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during their successful congressional campaigns. Justice Democrats did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.
According to the letter from the student groups, Morse should know he holds a “position of power” over many young people.
Some of the students who have been personally affected by Morse’s alleged behavior asked the political groups to stop working with him, the letter said.
The letter alleged that Morse set age minimums on his Tinder and Grindr dating apps to 18 and regularly matched with college students, including those at UMass Amherst and state college Democratic leaders.
One student who had a sexual encounter with Morse found out afterward that Morse is a mayor and university lecturer, the letter said, and the student felt uncomfortable at learning this information. The students Morse contacted on social media “feel pressured to respond” due to Morse’s status, the letter said.
“Even if these scenarios are mutually consensual, the pattern of Morse using his platform and taking advantage of his position of power for romantic or sexual gain, specifically toward young students, is unacceptable,” students wrote in the letter.
The alleged behaviors represent a trend that went on for years, according to the letter, and has been “well-known and widely discussed” among college Democrats in Western Massachusetts.
The letter calls on Morse to “immediately cease” the behavior.
“Morse will no longer be welcome at our events and our organizations will be completely disaffiliating from Morse,” it said.
Morse, in his statement to MassLive, said that he struggled with accepting his sexuality while growing up gay and closeted in Holyoke. In high school, he found it difficult to find other openly gay students.
As he became more comfortable with himself, Morse has had relationships as a young, single, openly gay man, he said in the statement.
“I will not apologize for living life out of the closet, for going on dates, and having consensual conversations,” he said.
UMass Amherst’s policy on consensual relationships between faculty and students notes that those relationships are “inherently problematic” due to the unequal power dynamic between the people involved, according to the school’s statement.
“Therefore, faculty are prohibited from entering into a sexual relationship with any student or postdoc for whom the faculty member has any responsibility for supervision, evaluation, grading, advising, employment, or other instructional or supervisory activity,” the statement said.
As part of its review, UMass will be working to determine whether Morse was in any kind of personal relationships with students in his classes, according to university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.
Morse is not currently a UMass employee. He previously served as an adjunct instructor in urban government and politics for several semesters, and last taught at the university in spring 2019.
The university has no plans to rehire Morse, the statement said.
The allegations have begun to reverberate politically for Morse.
Jennifer Taub, a law professor at the Western New England University School of Law, said on Twitter Saturday she was withdrawing her support for Morse.
“What is revealed here ￼shows a tremendous lack of judgment￼,” Taub wrote. “Hoping that he gets the help he needs and moves forward with an already promising future.”
I am withdrawing my support￼ for Alex Morse. ￼What is revealed here ￼shows a tremendous lack of judgment￼. Hoping that he gets the help he needs and moves forward with an already promising future. https://t.co/FQaeriwQsb— Jennifer Taub (@jentaub) August 8, 2020
In Holyoke, Linda Vacon, the city’s Ward 5 councilor, called for Morse to resign over the students’ allegations.“It’s a huge ethical breach of trust,” Vacon said.
Terence Murphy, Ward 2 councilor, said he’s concerned over whether Morse used his role as a UMass instructor to encourage students to engage in relationships.
“It would bother me if you use your role, and because of that role, you have an uncomfortable influence over someone to agree to a relationship,” Murphy said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.