While allegations that an out gay candidate for a western Massachusetts US House seat engaged in inappropriate conduct with students at the University of Massachusetts were shown to be fabricated, UMass is moving forward with a wide-ranging investigation into his conduct.
“[Natashia] Tidwell is conducting her independent review as described in this announcement,” Ed Blaguszewski, the executive director of strategic communications at UMass, wrote in an August 25 email referring to the August 14 announcement that Tidwell, a partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr in Boston, would investigate Alex Morse. “As noted in the announcement, she will take all appropriate time required to conduct a comprehensive review. No specific date has been set to complete the review.”
Morse, 31, has been the mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, since he was first elected at 22. He taught at UMass as an adjunct from 2014 through 2019. Last year, Morse, a progressive Democrat, announced he would challenge Richard Neal, the Democrat who has held the seat since 1989 and serves as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Despite fabrication by its own students, university unleashes former mob prosecutor on Alex Morse
On August 7, a private letter sent to Morse by some members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDMA) alleging that Morse had engaged in inappropriate conduct with UMass students was published in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the UMass student newspaper.
In a statement to the newspaper, Morse apologized if his outreach to students via social media had made some of them uncomfortable and he wrote that he had “consensual adult relationships, including some with college students,” though none that he was teaching or overseeing.
UMass policy allows faculty to have sex with students who they are not teaching, grading, or supervising. Sex between consenting adults of the same sex is legal in Massachusetts and across the country. Morse hooked up with his partners using the Grindr and Tinder apps, a common and legal activity among gay men.
That kind of revelation coming roughly three weeks before the September 1 Democratic primary would typically end a political career and likely have blown up Morse’s campaign, which was already struggling, except that The Intercept, an online news outlet, published a series of stories beginning on August 12 showing that the allegations were fabricated by some members of the CDMA, including Andrew Abramson and Timothy Ennis, who were intent on assisting Neal. Ennis and Abramson began organizing the smear campaign in October 2019 and sent pitches to reporters as early as April that were rejected.
Later Intercept stories showed that senior members of the State Democratic Party in Massachusetts, including Gus Bickford, the party chair, and Veronica Martinez, the party’s executive director, had assisted the students and later instructed them to destroy records that documented the smear campaign.
To date, there is no evidence that any student has complained about Morse’s conduct to UMass or any other institution or agency so the predicate for the investigation in unknown. UMass responded to an initial email asking if the investigation was still live, but it did not respond to a follow-up email asking if the predicate for the investigation was Morse’s statement in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.
The UMass investigation was announced on August 8 with the Tidwell hire announced six days later and two days after The Intercept published its first story.
In its August 14 press release, UMass wrote that “the allegations initially raised in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian necessitate a thorough and independent review” that might determine if “students were subjected to a hostile learning environment as articulated in [UMass] campus policies, which are based on and guided by federal and state anti-discrimination law, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.”
Tidwell joined Saul Ewing in April of this year. Previously, she worked at Hogan Lovells. She had a career as a federal prosecutor trying public corruption and organized crime cases. Tidwell earned her law degree while working in the Cambridge Police Department. She was a lieutenant when she left that department after 10 years.
Title IX was initially intended to combat discrimination against women in sports at school districts and universities that receive federal funding. In 2011, the Obama administration broadened its definition to apply to harassment and sexual assaults with the requirement the education institutions investigate complaints promptly under the threat that non-compliance could result in the withdrawal of federal funding. The 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter that expanded the application of Title IX was rescinded by the Trump administration, which proposed new Title IX rules this year.
The expansion of Title IX has supporters, who argue it made campuses and schools safer, and critics, who assert that the investigations were inherently biased and unfair to the accused.
Laura Kipnis, a film professor at Northwestern University, is among the critics of Title IX. Her 2017 book, “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus” is a harrowing account of the use of Title IX complaints at that university. Kipnis was the subject of several Title IX complaints after she criticized the process in published articles.
“I’m afraid I have only a very predictable thing to say which is that the child Democrats who tried to set Morse up should be put before a firing squad,” Kipnis wrote in an email seeking comment on the Morse episode. “It’s horrifying to see the younger generation, who probably think of themselves as progressive, trying to leverage sexual accusations for political gain with absolutely no attention paid to the tragic histories of these sorts of crusades and who they end up destroying, which is invariably queer people and men of color.”
Even as UMass declines to spell out why the investigation into Morse is moving forward, his opponent, Neal, in a recent debate, declined to acknowledge that the charges against his opponent had been shown to be false.
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