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By David McNair | firstname.lastname@example.org
Published online 10:46am Wednesday Aug 18th, 2010
On John Casteen’s last official day in office as the president of the University of Virginia, a tragic story, one fit for the pages of the award-winning literary journal that he nurtured, began to unfold.
That Friday, July 30, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, 52-year-old Kevin Morrissey, took his own life. Since then, UVA has shrouded VQR behind a wall of silence, changing the office locks, launching an audit, and even routing all incoming telephone calls to the University’s public relations office.
A Hook investigation reveals that behind the staid, Thomas Jefferson-designed exterior of VQR’s headquarters swirl allegations of financial recklessness, conflicts of interest, and a bizarre pattern of management-by-email that drove a staffer to quit. Some say there was also a pattern of bullying that may have pushed a fragile man into tragic oblivion.
What’s more, according to a former VQR employee, University officials have known about some of the personnel problems for at least five years.
An ambitious editor
A group called the Workplace Bullying Institute minces no words about the situation, suggesting that Morrissey’s boss, VQR editor Theodore H. “Ted” Genoways was a bully and that UVA was “unresponsive.” But if Genoways has been cast as the problem, he also appears to be a key source of VQR’s success.
Hired in 2003 at the tender age of 31, Genoways arrived with high hopes and high praise including President John Casteen’s enthusiasm for his “energetic intelligence and visionary thinking.”
He transformed VQR long known for publishing poetry and short stories on black & white pages with punchy, magazine-style theme issues and loads of full-color photography. Along with the new look came an expanded mission including hard-hitting non-fiction such as Toni Morrison’s account of the long road to racial integration and an on-the-ground exposé on the capture of Saddam Hussein. Just three years after Genoways arrived, Casteen’s enthusiasm seemed justified as the journal won two National Magazine Awards, bringing new prominence to VQR, and to its young editor.
For Maria Morrissey, however, the older sister of the late Kevin Morrissey, the success also brought heartache. Based on information she gathered from VQR staffers, University officials, police, and her brother’s own notes, Maria Morrissey portrays Genoways as someone who created a work environment so hostile it became unbearable.
“Our family is convinced,” she says, “by all that we have learned since Kevin’s death that, were it not for Genoways’ relentless bullying, Kevin would be alive today.”
Genoways, now receiving his own pummeling on blogs and comment boards, has mostly avoided responding to the charge.
“I don’t want to jeopardize a resolution,” says Genoways, explaining why he’s referring all questions to his lawyer. However, he did comment for a recent article on Morrissey’s suicide in the Chronicle of Higher Education, claiming that UVA had already “reviewed all the allegations being made against me and found them to be without grounds.”
“That’s not true,” counters Maria Morrissey, contending that UVA officials told her after the article appeared that that was false. Citing the confidentiality inherent in personnel matters, UVA spokesperson Carol Wood declines to clarify the dispute other than to note that “not everything” in the Chronicle story was true.
What is clear is that Genoways issued a statement on the matter far ahead of his employer. On August 1, two days after Morrissey’s death, Genoways broadcast an email informing friends and colleagues of the sad news and defending himself against the accusations. Considering the way that Genoways learned of his managing editor’s death, he might be excused for panicking.
‘Please tell everyone I’m sorry’
After getting the devastating news about her brother that fateful Friday morning, sister Maria Morrissey learned something else: that Genoways had sent her brother an email accusing him of jeopardizing the life of a writer an hour before he shot himself. She says she confronted Genoways that afternoon by telephone.
“I introduced myself and asked him if he sent such an email to Kevin,” says Maria Morrissey. “It was only after Ted had admitted to sending the email and justified his anger that I told him that Kevin had taken his own life. ‘So it appears’,” Morrissey says she told the award-winning editor, “‘he felt the full weight of your accusation’.”
Two days later, Genoways began his explanatory email by saying that, according to Morrissey’s family, his managing editor had “set out beside him… a suicide note blaming me.” Maria Morrissey, however, says the note her brother left behind said no such thing.
“I said nothing to Ted on the phone that Friday about Kevin’s note, as I hadn’t seen it yet,” she says. “Kevin had too much integrity to blame anyone for his death. Kevin’s note simply said, ‘Please tell everyone I’m sorry. I know they wouldn’t understand, but I simply can’t bear it any longer.’ That’s it.”
Later that evening, members of the Morrissey family say they received calls from UVA’s chief operating officer Leonard Sandridge, who offered the University’s full support and said he would remain available throughout the night.
‘The toast of the publishing world’
“I will never forget the firm, enthusiastic handshake [Morrissey] gave me when they called out the award for General Excellence at the National Magazine Award ceremony in 2006,” wrote Genoways in his explanatory email. “We were the toast of the publishing world that night. We received a phone call on our way out to tell us that the Washington Post would be declaring us the industry’s big winner for the year.”
Indeed, 2006 was a very good year for VQR. Under Morrissey and Genoways, the magazine had been nominated for six “Ellies,” the highest accolades in the magazine world. At the May 9 awards banquet at the Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C., VQR took the General Excellence Award for magazines with circulations under 100,000. Perhaps more surprisingly, it took home the Fiction Award, edging out such heavyweights as The Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Esquire, and Harper’s.
As Slate put it, “It was as if a scrappy farm team had demolished the Yankees in an exhibition game.”
On the big night, however, Genoways noticed that Morrissey had slipped away to his hotel room instead of celebrating and that “his mood darkened in the years that followed.” Genoways described how Morrissey, whom he had once considered a close friend, grew increasingly distant. Even his family members concede that he had distanced himself from them in recent years.
“I never had any illusions,” Genoways wrote, “about who Kevin was. He was prickly, mercurial, often brooding. As Kevin struggled through these issues,” Genoways continued, “particularly in the last year, his work suffered, and his demeanor, to my mind, was often unacceptable for the workplace.”
Genoways went on to accuse Morrissey’s siblings of “repeatedly calling and e-mailing” him since Morrissey’s death, personally threatening to end his career, and implying that he was responsible for their brother’s death.
“They tell me that the majority of the staff agrees with them,” wrote Genoways, who expressed resignation over the fact that his staff might hate him, adding “And perhaps they do.”
However, while Genoways admitted that office conflicts likely fueled Morrissey’s depression, he said he could not accept blame for his death. Genoways then asked the email’s recipients for help completing VQR’s fall issue.
A call to 911
“He was occasionally grumpy, no doubt,” said Sheila McMillen, VQR’s associate editor and circulation manager, during an August 6 memorial service, “but he was an honorable man decent, generous, kind, and reliable as sunshine.”
Without a college degree, Morrissey had become the managing editor of one of the country’s leading literary journals. He lived alone, loved his work, enjoyed cooking, and considered his co-workers his friends. But they say he also suffered from depression, for which he was currently taking medication, nearly all his life.
VQR associate editor Molly Minturn told mourners at the ceremony held at Newcomb Hall that Morrissey had a sense of humor even about the future of the publishing industry, which has been hammered in recent years by technological advances that have begun pushing the printed page toward obsolescence.
However, Morrissey, she said, expressed excitement about e-books, an excitement Minturn did not share.
“We often argued about this,” she said.
However, Minturn said Morrissey appeared to concede when he forwarded her a link to a New Yorker story about a burlesque show where dancers, dressed like librarians, slowly remove their clothes and suggestively rub their bodies with books.
“Could this be done with e-books?” wrote Morrissey.
Although friends and family say Morrissey could laugh hard enough to make his whole body shake, they were aware of the depression that could send him to particularly dark places.
“But he always got out of those,” recalled Morrissey’s friend and former lover, writer Gwenyth Swain, the person to whom he had addressed his farewell note. “I had such hope he would again.”
Unfortunately, Morrissey made other plans.
At 11:24am that Friday, the Charlottesville/Albemarle Emergency Communications Center received a 911 call from a man who said he wanted to report a shooting downtown near the old C&O coal tower. Police responded immediately, and when Charlottesville detective Lisa Reeves arrived just beyond the eastern terminus of Water Street she found a middle-aged white male with a fatal head wound. Beside him was everything police needed: a handgun, a driver’s license, and a will with contact numbers for family and University officials. The short typed note to Swain was attached.
The sole beneficiary of Morrissey’s will, Swain told a story that moved many mourners to tears.
“His life was going into such upheaval that week,” said Swain, “but he thought to send a card and a gift to my son for his birthday that arrived on Saturday.”
On Monday, August 2, the day after her son’s birthday, Charlottesville police called to give Swain the news while her son, she said, was on the floor beside her playing with Morrissey’s present. “It was my son’s favorite gift,” said Swain.
“He was very thoughtful and always planned things out thoroughly,” one friend said at the memorial. “Kevin never did anything by accident.”
Despite having enthusiastically endorsed Genoways’ hiring and having long allowed VQR to report directly to his office, former President Casteen did not attend the August 6 memorial. While attempts to reach Casteen were unsuccessful, UVA spokesperson Wood says Casteen was out of town that day. Meanwhile, incoming president Teresa A. Sullivan was busy giving her first press conference. And while the University covered the Morrissey family’s traveling expenses, lodging, and even catered the service in Newcomb Hall’s piano room, no University official spoke.
In a slideshow that played throughout the ceremony, photos showed Morrissey as a young man– he was a high school track star– as well as myriad images with other VQR staffers in the office and around town. There were no photos of Genoways.
Stranger still, Genoways, who had befriended Morrissey while the two worked together at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and who would bring Morrissey to Virginia in 2004, was absent as well. In fact, during the two-hour funeral, Genoways’ name was never mentioned.
And while all current staff and several past VQR staffers and interns were there, the most controversial new VQR employee a 24-year-old woman was not.
A pattern of bullying?
According to sources close to VQR– and based on several emails that seem to document certain incidents Genoways had a tendency to berate the person he hired as his right-hand man. But Genoways, who holds an untenured, general faculty post in the English Department, didn’t reserve his temper just for Morrissey.
“He also did this once to Jahan Ramazani, chair of the English Department, who had dropped by to tell Genoways that the English Department would not grant the tenure-track position he wanted,” says a source who allegedly heard the argument. “The door was closed,” says the source, “and he was roaring.”
The Hook attempted to contact Ramazani to confirm this, but he had not responded by press time
Last February, a Temple University professor and former literary journal editor, Don Lee, got a dose of Genoways’ wrath. On behalf of a student, Lee contacted Genoways to urge VQR’s consideration of a story the student had submitted a month earlier; but the following day, Lee informed Genoways that the student’s story had just been accepted elsewhere.
“What the f***, Don?,” Genoways scolded Lee. “I forwarded this message with instructions to read the story right away to one of our interns, the chair of our fiction board, and to one of our associate editors. You added hours of unnecessary work to an already overburdened staff.” Genoways informed Lee that he and his student were “tarnishing” their reputations.
“This behavior would piss me off no matter who perpetrated it, but I can’t believe it coming from you, Don. You were at this racket forever. You know better.”
Lee declines to comment on the exchange.
Away on a Guggenheim
As VQR grew from a slim black and white journal to a thicker, full-color magazine, it wasn’t just the printing bill that increased.
“We were overwhelmed by expenses,” says a former employee. “Ted was hired, I think, because Casteen wanted someone who could better promote the magazine and make it more prominent. But it was costing a small fortune.”
Following VQR’s success at the National Magazine Awards in 2006, UVA’s Board of Visitors approved a $117,000 operating budget increase. By 2009, the magazine, published four times a year, had two more such Awards and an annual operating budget of nearly $600,000, with about half the money from the state and the rest from various endowments and funds.
According to VQR’s website, circulation is 7,000, but sources indicate that subscriptions have fallen precipitously since the website was updated and that subscription revenue barely dents the overall budget. The Hook has filed a request for financial records.
In the Chronicle article, journalist Elliott Wood, a former VQR intern and recent contributor, defends Genoways by calling him the “creative genius responsible for the magazine’s success ” and the “fulcrum of the discussions” about the “future of VQR and, honestly, the future of journalism.”
However, Genoways also appears to have served as something of a financial fulcrum for Wood. In a June 22 email obtained by the Hook, Genoways asks staff to pay Wood $6,000 for an Afghanistan story and an advance on travel expenses, hefty pay by VQR’s historic standards.
According to a former VQR employee, the previous editor, Staige Blackford, typically limited compensation to just $10-$15 a page, no matter what the writer’s status, with travel expenses not covered, and advances unheard of.
“We never lacked in the number of manuscripts we received,” says the former employee. “People were submitting to Staige because they wanted to be in the magazine.”
It turns out that Genoways offers publication assistance in more than just a magazine. Two years ago, in his role as VQR editor, he organized a series of poetry books to be published by the University of Georgia Press and described on the VQR website as “some of the freshest, most accomplished poetry being written today.”
Surprisingly, among the first six titles was a book by the president’s son, John Casteen IV and a book each by two members of VQR’s own advisory boards. There was even a volume penned by Genoways himself. All these books have won praise from reviewers, with Genoways’ own title garnering Pulitzer Prize-winner Natasha Trethewey’s favor as a “beautiful book.”
And yet with Genoways himself noting that book publication is practically a prerequisite on the creative writing career ladder and with four of the six titles emerging from VQR family, he has faced allegations of self-promotion and presidential nepotism.
“My book had to be sent out to two anonymous outside readers and then approved by the press’s advisory board,” he maintains in a blog comment. That VQR paid a $2,000 per title subsidy (from a special $2,500 per year “discretionary fund” in his case), Genoways argues, shows there’s no conflict of interest in getting his or the president’s son’s poetry published.
Genoways himself earns a compensation package, including benefits, that now stands at $170,000, which is far more than UVA’s average pay for an associate professor and more than double what UVA typically pays an assistant professor, the lowest rung on the tenure track. In fact, in the English department, one of the most prominent faculty members, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove, earns about the same as Genoways.
Morrissey was earning around $70,000, and there was even a full-time online editor earning around $80,000 by the name of Waldo Jaquith, well known in Charlottesville as an avid blogger and political dabbler.
“We celebrate one another’s birthdays, have dinner at each other’s houses, and go out socially regularly,” Jaquith writes on his blog, noting that one employee’s young daughter knew Morrissey as “Uncle Kevin.”
Such an insular office would hit a major hurdle as communication breakdowns intensified as Genoways began spending large amounts of time outside the office over the past year, say sources. Besides attending publishing conferences, Genoways precipitously shrank his face time in June when he began a $35,000 Guggenheim fellowship. In his absence, according to UVA spokesperson Carol Wood, he put Morrissey firmly in charge. Or so it seemed.
An intern ascendant
In one of the most unusual aspects of Genoways’s management, he reportedly asked his staffers to read all his incoming emails and forward anything deemed pressing. His frequent absences drove this policy, he allegedly explained.
At least one staffer concerned that reading someone else’s emails might violate University policy– refused to participate. And in the early days, the bizarre policy merely created embarrassing moments; however, the scheme appears to have eventually played a role in Morrissey’s fateful decision.
An already awkward atmosphere escalated last fall when Genoways inserted another factor into the office dynamic: a young woman whose previous experience seemed as geared to money as it was to publishing. Before long, she’d be convening meetings with staff about the future of their jobs.
The woman was a 2007 UVA graduate, Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, who studied under the prestigious Echols Scholarship program and then earned a masters in English education at UVA’s Curry School. After making a seven-figure donation to Curry, she was asked to join the Curry foundation’s board of directors as its youngest member.
Doors were also opening at VQR.
“Alana just showed up at the office one morning last November,” says a source, who points out that her title as assistant editor and development manager soon appeared on the magazine’s masthead. “Genoways told the staff she was going to be an intern, but she had business cards and was traveling on VQR dime.”
While some might consider hiring a donor as a development official to be a potential conflict, Levinson-LaBrosse was no ordinary donor. In addition to the $1.5 million she gave UVA’s Young Writer’s Program, her father (also holding two UVA degrees) is a Silicon Valley science business titan, who committed $20 million to UVA a decade ago.
The relationship between the boss and the young fundraiser raised eyebrows, particularly after Levinson-LaBrosse accompanied Genoways on business trips, says a source. Although the source asserts no evidence suggesting any improper behavior between Genoways and Levinson-LaBrosse, the source claims that office morale sank when Levinson-LaBrosse became the only staffer in regular contact with Genoways.
“Her desk was in his office, and they would often be in there with the door closed,” says the source. “They would discuss VQR business without involving Kevin.”
Another source claims the hiring of Levinson-LaBrosse occurred without the usual staff input. More seriously, says the source, it occurred without the usual advertisement and competition to ensure compliance with equal-opportunity law. Attempts to contact Levinson-LaBrosse resulted only in contact with an old family friend, a lawyer, who referred the question to UVA, which has declined to clarify the hire.
“Having a 24-year-old camped out in the private office of a manager would be dealt with just about instantly at any private company,” author John Bruce complains on his blog. “Not so with Genoways at UVA, apparently.”
However, according to various sources, Genoways had ample reasons to bring in a person with access to capital. Under his tenure, VQR had burned through most of its own rainy day fund. According to sources close to former editor Blackford, during his 28-year tenure, he had simply banked what he didn’t spend each year, creating a pool of money that stood, when he announced his retirement seven years ago, at approximately $800,000.
In June 2003, just a week before his planned retirement, the 72-year-old Blackford died after the Volvo station driven by his wife was struck by a Jeep on Emmet Street.
Through his lawyer, Genoways– asserting that president’s office accountants suggested a use-it-or-lose-it approach– concedes that he has drawn the fund down to $305,000. With the money that helped catapult VQR to such heights running out, Genoways had a good reason to feel anxious about a change at the top of the University.
“If excellence is no insurance, history no buffer,” Genoways wrote in a May 2009 essay on the future of university journals, “then our security lasts only as long as our current president.”
One month later, President Casteen would formally announce his retirement. And through his lawyer, Genoways concedes that he felt some anxiety when the president’s office notified him in May of this year that VQR would have to find a new home.
A close office unwinding
What happened with Morrissey began unfolding during a July 14 staff meeting. Genoways wasn’t there, but Jaquith (who declines to comment on the incident) made a wisecrack that may have offended Levinson-LaBrosse.
In a July 19 email obtained by the Hook, Genoways, who had put Morrissey in charge of the magazine during his Guggenheim leave, accused him of “unacceptable workplace behavior” and ordered him out of the office.
“If you are already at VQR office,” Genoways wrote in the emailed edict, “leave immediately and do not return to the office until July 26.”
Genoways, who didn’t specify what the unacceptable behavior was, also ordered Morrissey not to attend any meetings, perform any editorial tasks, or represent VQR in any way, or discuss the email. (Still, Genoways said he expected Morrissey to work normal hours from home.) Worst for someone who had considered his colleagues his family, Genoways told Morrissey not to talk to his co-workers.
“These are all classic tactics employed by bullies,” writes Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, in an article on the VQR situation. “They are not completely unlike torture.”
Morrissey responded by pleading ignorance to any exile-worthy transgression. And, as instructed, he left the office.
During the week-long office ban July 19-23, sources say that he embarked on frequent communications with officials in UVA’s human resources, ombudsman’s, and president’s offices. His cell phone records, his sister says, show 18 such pleas for help.
On his blog, Jaquith explains that simply quitting wasn’t much of an option for a well-paid editor who had recently purchased a downtown condominium. More crucially, Jaquith emphasizes the emotional connection shared by staff.
“For any of us to quit our job,” Jaquith wrote, “we would also be giving up on spending forty hours a week with dear friends, friends who we would have been abandoning to a difficult working environment.”
Sources say the entire staff of VQR, minus Genoways, pleaded with officials at a meeting held in the president’s office for assistance over their work environment. A source close to VQR says that an HR official told them that VQR “had always been handled differently because it’s the president’s baby.”
According to a handwritten note found among Morrissey’s belongings, HR manager Angelee Godbold assured Morrissey that the stay-at-home edict violated UVA policy and that she would try to get him back in his office. His persistence was beginning to pay off.
On Monday morning, July 26, President Casteen’s chief of staff, Nancy Rivers, with Genoways in the room, met separately with Morrissey and Jaquith. A source says Jaquith asked Genoways to explain why he instituted the week-long ban. Unsatifisfied with Genoways’ answer, which included accusing Jaquith of “behaving in a unprofessional manner” toward Levinson-LaBrosse, Jaquith tendered his resignation on the spot.
That same Monday, sources say that Genoways was called to the President’s office, reprimanded for his treatment of his employees, and told not to retaliate. It turns out this wasn’t the first time that the President’s Office had to deal with abuse complaints in the VQR office.
“I can understand why Kevin did what he did,” says Candace Pugh, a former VQR employee who worked for the magazine for 32 years before, she says, she was “forced out” by Genoways in 2005. “That man should not be in charge of other people. He’s a danger,” she insists.
Pugh says she contacted officials in the President’s office and filed a harassment complaint against Genoways, who allegedly ordered her out of the office she had occupied for three decades and routinely reprimanded her for not doing her job.
“I was at the end of my rope,” says Pugh.
In an attempt to deal with the problem, the President’s office handed the responsibility of supervising VQR employees to Morrissey, says Pugh. However, she claims the harassment continued. In the end, after Pugh hired a lawyer, the University offered a one-year severance package under the condition that no lawsuit would be filed.
“Ted wanted his own staff, and wanted me out of there,” says Pugh. “I finally decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. And the President’s office just stood by and let it happen.”
UVA spokesperson Wood, asserting personnel confidentiality, points to the varied work between HR officials and staff as evidence that UVA was attempting to deal with personnel situations. “In the wake of Mr. Morrissey’s death,” Wood writes in an email, “the University continues to work with all members of VQR staff to address and resolve these issues.”
The final week
The last week of Morrissey’s life, HR officials informed VQR staff that they would invite in a mediator. Days before Morrissey’s death, one staff member allegedly informed an HR official that staff “feared that Kevin was suicidal.” And, according to someone close to Morrissey, during a lunch with an official from the president’s office on the Tuesday before he died, the exiled managing editor broke down and cried. According to another source, UVA’s Director of faculty and staff employee relations, Alan Cohn, told a staff member that he realized the situation called for “immediate intervention,” but added that, “it may take some time.”
Sources say the staff, convinced that something was finally going to be done, expressed relief. Everyone except Morrissey. According to a source, he seemed glum, and when asked what the matter was, the response was simple: “When Ted retaliates for all this, it will come down on me.”
As Morrissey feared, he and another staff member, despite the University’s assurances, received angry emails from Genoways on Friday.
The email to associate editor Molly Minturn, sources say, so upset her that she took it directly to the president’s office and HR. Reportedly visibly shaken, she was unofficially diagnosed with “post-traumatic stress syndrome” by HR counselors, who suggested she go on medical leave. And that was before she heard the news about Morrissey.
The email sent to Morrissey may have been upsetting as well. Three days after Morrissey had asked Genoways if he wanted to respond to an email by a Mexican journalist covering that nation’s deadly drug wars, Genoways accused Morrissey, by not forwarding the email to Genoways sooner, of endangering the journalist’s life.
“I found that email open on Kevin’s iphone,” says Maria Morrissey. “It was sent from Ted at 9:47am. Kevin wrote his suicide note about an hour later.”
“Do you know what book he was reading?” asks Maria Morrissey. “We found it in on his desk in his apartment, covered with notes. He was reading a book called Working with the Self Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job.”