Breaking his silence after a staffer's suicide, Ted Genoways depicts pressures at VQR and answers the charge that he bullied Kevin Morrissey to death

  • 0 COMMENTS

 Among the questions unanswered in the wake of the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of the University of Virginia’s critically acclaimed Virginia Quarterly Review, is this one: What is it like to share an office with Ted Genoways?

;

Within days of Morrissey’s July 30 death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, anonymous critics denounced Genoways, VQR’s editor and a rising star in the literary world, as a “workplace bully,” someone whose management style had driven his longtime colleague to a desperate final act. Maria Morrissey, sister of the deceased who had been estranged from her brother in recent years, nonetheless wrote on a website within days following her brother’s death that Kevin “had been the target of a workplace bully for several years.”

“‘Bullies are always cowards at heart and may be credited with a pretty safe instinct in scenting their prey,’” she wrote on cvillenews.com, quoting the writer Anna Julia Cooper. “Yes, from what I’ve been reading, Ted chose his prey well.”

With trigger speed, Genoways had gone from being the darling of the literary world to its worst nightmare—a guy no one would want to work with. While VQR contributors and others who know Genoways stepped forth to defend him, Genoways himself remained silent. His lawyer made a few comments to the press, but Genoways stayed away from his colleague’s funeral and away from reporters. 

Less than two weeks ago, Genoways finally agreed to talk, to give an account of the kind of changes within VQR and at UVA that put pressure on him and all of the magazine’s small staff. No one can ever know what led Morrissey to his final tragic act, but there is certainly more to understand about the atmosphere at VQR than the flat term “workplace bully” can convey.

When I met with him on a recent Friday afternoon, the editor of VQR was sitting at a long, “J”-shaped desk in the basement of his one-story brick rancher in Albemarle County. He was surrounded by several stuffed bookshelves. Among their contents: hardcovers by Larry McMurtry, a copy of The Things They Carried, Civil War books like The Devil’s Own Work and Team of Rivals, about members of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, who ran against the 16th U.S. President in the 1860 Republican National Convention. 

Genoways’ wife, Mary Anne, came in and out a few times joined by Pepper, the couple’s dog—a Labrador mix who was born deaf. On one occasion, roughly three hours into the interview, Mary Anne put her arms around Genoways’ shoulders.

“I want you back,” she said.

Later on, she told him that the fall issue of VQR, completed following Morrissey’s suicide on July 30, had arrived at their home. 

The issue has an abbreviated masthead, absent the names of VQR staff members Molly Minturn and Sheila McMillen and former staffer Waldo Jaquith, who all worked to complete the issue—albeit, not in the same office as Genoways. The names of Morrissey and Genoways remain, as does that of development manager and assistant editor Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, who tells C-VILLE that she no longer works for the journal.

Ted Genoways remains on leave from UVA following the suicide of managing editor Kevin Morrissey. In response to reports that VQR staff filed complaints against him prior to his Guggenheim Fellowship leave, he says “I wouldn’t have taken the leave if I knew that there were complaints that severe and that pressing. But I didn’t know.”

Following Morrissey’s suicide, when UVA announced the cancellation of VQR’s upcoming winter issue, it halted the operation of a journal that has published without interruption for more than 85 years. It also suspended the fate of a divided staff for what UVA spokesperson Carol Wood called a “much-needed break”—which has likely been less restful than the phrase suggests. 

In recent weeks, staff members met with consultants hired by UVA to evaluate management of the journal. With headlines like “‘Bossed’ to Suicide” (New York Post) and “Did Depression or an Alleged Bully Boss Prompt Editor’s Suicide?” (ABC) now tied to VQR, a review of workplace dynamics seems the least that UVA can do, especially in light of published but unconfirmed reports that suggest despairing staff had turned to University administration with complaints about Genoways and concerns about Morrissey that went unheeded.

While Morrissey’s death occurred at the height of VQR’s editorial powers, it exposed workplace anxieties about the magazine’s finances and fate. National Magazine Awards and nominations proclaimed VQR’s vitality, but a transition in university leadership threatened the journal’s ambitions and, perhaps, its existence. And just when staff relations seemed most organizationally confused and personally strained, Genoways opted not to lead directly but to manage from afar, taking leave for a prestigious literary fellowship, and leaving day-to-day relations to deteriorate.

Crisis and hard choices

In a May 2009 “manifesto” on the VQR website, Genoways wrote that schools that looked to cut literary journals from their expenses “would be diminished by their loss.”

“No one denies that we are in a period of crisis and hard choices,” he wrote, “but in such times doesn’t it make sense to start by ensuring the future of what you do best?” Was it a moment of prescience or a hint to those around VQR about what the magazine itself would face within a year?

VQR’s operating budget, according to Genoways, is roughly $482,000. One-third comes from endowment funds; one-third comes from income generated by the journal through subscriptions, advertising and licensing; and one-third comes from “a University allocation.” 

As the Great Recession hit in 2008, two of those three sources were in trouble. Between July 1 and December 31 of that year, the endowment pool managed by the University of Virginia Investment Management Company lost a total of $1.3 billion. Genoways says losses on investments between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2009 amounted to a loss of roughly $75,000 for the magazine. Genoways further states that a separate $800,000 fund established by his predecessor, Staige Blackford, dropped from $250,000 to $130,000 during this same period, thanks in part to a nearly $50,000 loss in interest.

“At the same time that the endowments are freefalling, subscriptions are slumping,” says Genoways. “The first thing that happens with a recession is people start getting rid of any expense they can eliminate.” An annual VQR subscription is $32.

The VQR’s decline in income overlaps with an increase in expenditures. UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood provided C-VILLE with a spreadsheet showing VQR’s total expenses for FY2009-10 at $795,670, up from $347,243 for FY2003-04 (Genoways started at the magazine in 2003). Of the $795,670 total, the sheet lists $648,074 for salaries, fringe benefits and “other expenses,” and $147,596 from endowment investments classified solely as “other expenses.” Genoways says the spreadsheet doesn’t tell the whole story of VQR’s finances. For instance, money from endowments “is not a University contribution, in the true sense of the term.”

Genoways says that in October 2006 University President John Casteen committed to increasing VQR allocations by $50,000 per year for three consecutive years, in response to Genoways’ concerns about the diminishing Blackford account. VQR had long been a part of the Office of the President, speaking in terms of the organizational chart.

“The president upped our allocation and committed to helping us raise $3 million in endowment funds to cover those costs permanently,” says Genoways. “And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

A redesign at the end of 2008 helped with VQR belt-tightening, increasing the number of words on the page to 750 from approximately 450.

Genoways attributes a good deal of the cost-cutting successes, from finding cheaper paper to new printers, to his managing editor Morrissey, who managed VQR’s accounts. “In total, he managed to take our issue costs for printing and shipping down from about $35,000 for each issue to about $25,000,” he says.

On the hunt for funds, in early 2009, Genoways got approval from UVA Vice President for Research Tom Skalak for VQR to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But a faculty member at the University had also applied, and with two applications in conflict, Genoways says, VQR’s did not move ahead.

Following that disappointment, Genoways says he met with Skalak to discuss other funding opportunities for VQR and mentioned an idea for a magazine writing and photojournalism program. He thought VQR could raise the money necessary for the program and “to stabilize the operations for VQR and LOOK3”—the organization that runs the annual Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville and has been unaffiliated with UVA to date. 

Genoways says Skalak encouraged contact with LOOK3 and efforts to raise the funds for such a program. He also says Skalak promised VQR $50,000 from the Office of the Vice President of Research during the 2010 fiscal year.

Writing the future of VQR

In August 2009, Genoways attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Vermont’s Middlebury College, which hosts hundreds of writers, editors and publishers each summer. During his time at the conference, Genoways says, he had dinner with VQR contributor Tom Sleigh, Ted Conover (a writer-in-residence at New York University’s literary reportage program) and Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, who graduated with a Master’s Degree in education from UVA’s Curry School in 2008. Over dinner, the four discussed how a magazine writing program at UVA might take shape. 

“It was a really productive conversation—to have Ted, on the one hand, talking about how they got things started organizationally at NYU, and Alana applying that to her knowledge of UVA and how it worked in terms of how it seeks donors,” says Genoways. 

Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of VQR who committed suicide on July 30, questioned a fellow staffer about “redundancies” as plans unfolded to keep the 85-year-old journal going under a new administration.

Levinson-LaBrosse, who attended Bread Loaf as a student and had previously given $1.5 million to UVA’s Young Writers Workshop to endow a director’s position, says she and Genoways “reconnected at Bread Loaf.” (The pair met previously when Levinson-LaBrosse worked on a speaker series for UVA’s Jefferson Literary and Debating Society.)

After she received an e-mail from Genoways asking her to consider working as a fundraiser, Levinson-LaBrosse says she visited to interview with each VQR staff member. She says she made her editorial interest clear to Genoways, who “assured me that my value as an employee was greater than a check.” 

“He was honest that my experience as a donor was part of my value as a fundraiser, but he made sure that his priorities regarding my hiring were clear,” says Levinson-LaBrosse. She agreed to start work on a volunteer basis on Monday, November 2. 

At the time, says Genoways, he did not grasp “the rather sizable hurdles for someone being able to fundraise for UVA”—from access to donor databases and travel liability to representing the school in an official capacity. For Levinson-LaBrosse to do those things, he says, required an actual position.

“Because Ted and Kevin were working on obtaining an exemption from [UVA’s] hiring freeze and an exemption from the legal search, we all knew it would take a while for me to become official,” says Levinson-LaBrosse.

Levinson-LaBrosse says that the VQR office “had its own tensions when I arrived.” But according to Genoways, “All of that business with Alana’s status seems to have created uncertainty and unrest among the staff.” And in an e-mail sent to friends after Morrissey’s suicide, and leaked to multiple media sources, Genoways wrote that tensions between the editor and his staff “grew poisonous.”

“In the last six months, my attempts to conceal the inner conflicts of the office were unsuccessful, Genoways wrote in that e-mail. “And many of you saw—or sensed—the unfortunate rift that grew up between [me and Kevin].”

Much has been made in other reports of the fact that Levinson-LaBrosse’s desk was in Genoways’ office, as if to exemplify the boss’s shifting interest away from the publication’s details per se and instead towards fundraising and reimagining VQR’s role at UVA. In fact, says Levinson-LaBrosse, when she first came on board, she was situated in Morrissey’s office. 

“Initially, the only open desk was in Kevin’s office so that is where I sat,” says Levinson-LaBrosse. “It was the intern’s desk and not a permanent working area for me.”

Levinson-LaBrosse’s position became official in June, seven months after she’d started helping out at VQR. Genoways seems to have moved quickly in those months when she was still a volunteer to shore up his efforts to increase the journal’s financial stability. 

During that interval, Genoways was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the amount of $35,000 to work on a project about American poet Walt Whitman and the Civil War. He decided to begin a leave of absence in June of 2010, a timeline he might wish now he had re-evaluated. He appointed Morrissey to serve as interim editor for one year in his absence.

University in transition

On May 21, as his leave time approached, Genoways says, he received a call from Joan Fry, special assistant to the president. According to Genoways, Fry told him that President Casteen had met with incoming president Teresa Sullivan, “and that they had decided that VQR should relocate to another part of the University within the reporting structure.”

The same day, in an e-mail to Casteen, Genoways shared several of VQR’s goals, including a plan to raise a $3 million endowment to replace the $150,000 allocation from the president’s office, and the hope to create a magazine writing program with LOOK3. He also expressed concerns over the future home of the magazine.

“I fear those champions [of VQR], with you at the head of the list, will soon be gone, and that VQR’s 85-year history may end with it,” wrote Genoways. In response, Casteen wrote that a “quiet and orderly transfer simply makes better sense to me.” He added that Sullivan, scheduled to start her job on August 1, “expects me to leave a blank desk for her, and I think that her expectation is reasonable.” 

Staff was made aware of the move by June, when Genoways went on leave for his Guggenheim Fellowship. According to UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood, via e-mail, “discussions were under way for a new reporting line, and the Office of the Vice President for Research was one office being considered, but no final decisions had been made.” 

Molly Minturn, associate editor of VQR, says staff knew the journal’s move to the Office of the Vice President for Research was “a strong possibility, but nothing had been finalized.” 

“We knew that Casteen had given Ted a number of options to choose from, and Ted’s choice was the VPR,” she says. She describes the planned move as “slightly confusing to the rest of staff, because none of us were really consulted about it. But we were made aware of it.”

Once staff was made aware of plans, however, Genoways was out of the office on leave, with no clear vision of what the future of VQR meant for the individuals involved. 

“In terms of whatever Ted’s long-term vision for the magazine was, we wanted more information,” says Minturn. “And we were hopeful that we would be a part of his long-term vision.”

In a July 12 e-mail from Genoways to Assistant VP for Research Jeffrey Plank, obtained by C-VILLE and confirmed by Genoways as his, the VQR editor wrote that the journal received “an appropriation for $146,457 for FY10-11 from the president’s office” and had “$305,000 in cash on hand and in investments.” In the chance that the journal received no funds through the president’s office, Genoways wrote, “that is the money that will make up for the president’s appropriation for two fiscal years.”

In the same e-mail, Genoways writes that he would “hope to continue to have a say in the staffing and location of VQR, even as our operation comes into cooperation with other organizations and parts of the University.”

“I understand and support the desire to eliminate redundancies at staff levels and to create coherence within the new center as it develops,” he writes. “I would ask only that I continue to have a role in how those decisions are made.” Vice President for Research Tom Skalak was unavailable for comment, and Plank referred questions to Carol Wood.

Minturn recalls a VQR staff meeting during which Levinson-LaBrosse mentioned the possibility of jobs being restructured, and describes the feeling in the office as “worrisome.” While it is impossible to know how such a meeting affected Morrissey, the managing editor has been repeatedly described by colleagues and family as a man both doggedly devoted to his work and extremely sensitive. Additionally, in a leaked e-mail from Genoways, the editor called Morrissey, whom he’d known for 10 years, since they worked together in Minnesota, “prickly, mercurial, often brooding.” “Kevin in particular had a history of disagreeing with his bosses,” he wrote.

“Everything seemed to be moving a bit fast, without very much information,” says Minturn.

Further divisions among the staff

With Genoways on leave and Sullivan’s August 1 start-date approaching, Levinson-LaBrosse says Plank asked her to assemble documents to give the Vice President of Research “a picture of VQR as a department.” 

Among these documents was financial information for FY2010. Levinson-LaBrosse says that in April she had spoken with Morrissey about assembling an annual report for 2009-2010, and the managing editor confirmed he could complete financials for such a report “by mid-August.” But as summer waned on, something changed in Morrissey’s ability to complete that task.

“Three weeks before August 1, I asked Kevin if he could have that report done early, in time to turn in for the VPR,” says Levinson-LaBrosse. “He told me he could not do that.” With the magazine’s future seeming precarious, this news must have come as something of a surprise.

Trying to recalibrate expectations, Levinson-LaBrosse says she requested nine months of financial information for the fiscal year, then six, then three. “At that point, the gesture of compliance was more important than complete information,” says Levinson-LaBrosse. “He said he could not do any of it. That the books were all over the place.” She ultimately told Genoways she would assemble the materials. However, with VQR’s planned transition nearing its deadline, the job fell to an employee who was the focal point of office unrest.

While Genoways says Morrissey “was responsible for the day-to-day operations” of the VQR budget, Minturn says the managing editor took it upon himself to be the bookkeeper at VQR, and financial responsibilities ultimately lie with Genoways.

“Kevin did everything in his power to give as much financial information as possible to Ted and Alana,” says Minturn. “The request was to have the current fiscal year’s books up to date by July 30, which normally is kind of an unheard-of request.”

Also while Genoways was on leave, Levinson-LaBrosse says Morrissey approached her with an e-mail “that had a sentence highlighted about staff redundancies.”

“Kevin asked me what I thought the sentence meant,” she said via e-mail. She responded that Genoways, “by speaking to staff redundancies, was expressing readiness to work with the VPR and its offered resources.” In an uneasy office atmosphere, did Morrissey—facing questions about his work, reported to be anxious about other employment prospects —feel his job was threatened?

Tensions came to a boiling point in the office. According to published reports, Genoways e-mailed Morrissey on July 19 and asked him not to report to the VQR office for one week. When asked, Levinson-LaBrosse says both web editor Jaquith and Morrissey “were asked to work from home because their pattern of unprofessional and, at times, explicitly rude behavior toward me in the office was preventing us, as a staff, from getting the transition materials together.” Jaquith refused to comment about this claim.

Ultimately, Levinson-LaBrosse says that she compiled the necessary financial data with help from Minturn and submitted it to VPR. Minturn confirms that she helped assemble the data, and called Morrissey at home for assistance with the work.

“After Kevin returned to the office the week of July 26, I told him about the various financial things Alana had asked for help with,” says Minturn. “Kevin seemed surprised, and said he had provided her with all of that information already, and had shown her where on the VQR server to find the things she needed.”

Additional reports mention that Genoways and Casteen’s chief of staff, Nancy Rivers, attended separate July 26 meetings with Jaquith and Morrissey. (Jaquith, who now works for UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, quit on that day, but agreed to help finish the fall issue of VQR.*) Questions to Rivers about the meetings and why they were called were not returned by press time. However, news sources report that Morrissey placed upwards of a dozen calls to University human resources and the Office of the President in the two weeks prior to his death.

Within four days of Morrissey’s meeting with President Casteen’s chief of staff and one day before the new president moved in, Morrissey took his own life at the Coal Tower. By August 3, his sister made her first public allegation that Morrissey was the target of a workplace bully, a phrase that still hangs over the situation at VQR.

“I think workplace bully is a real catchphrase and it stirs up a lot of emotions. I think many people feel bullied,” says Minturn. “I would never say that Ted was a tyrant. But I would say that from my perspective, the way he treated Kevin—and I’m talking about Kevin’s banning from the office—there was absolutely no reason for it.”

Workplace bullies and media debates

When Teresa Sullivan succeeded John Casteen as UVA president, the VQR moved under the supervision of UVA’s Office of Public Affairs—not exactly the place Genoways hoped to see it land. The deadline for the fall issue was pressing, and staff and Genoways worked in separate locations to meet it. Sullivan called for a financial audit of the journal and then expanded that “to include the management of VQR.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked “What Killed Kevin Morrissey?” followed within two weeks by a report on “The Today Show.” Genoways became a whipping boy for anyone who ever disliked a boss or those who make money speaking to the issue. VQR contributor Tom Bissell defended Genoways in the New York Observer, questioning the comments of workplace bullying experts who had never met Genoways or Morrissey and “who have a vested interest in stepping to the forefront to display their expertise and thereby control the narrative.” 

More than two dozen VQR contributors (including Bissell) signed their names to letters sent to multiple news sources. The letters describe Genoways as “professional, tactful, and respectful,” and call for a “full and impartial investigation.” Others questioned the vested interests of contributors, and whether they spent enough time in the VQR office to accurately assess Genoways’ behavior.

Sources from within the VQR office largely remained anonymous or silent. When Jaquith appeared on “The Today Show” in late August and called Genoways’ treatment of Morrissey during the final weeks of his life “egregious,” he later commented via his website that the show “skipped all of my nuanced remarks and just used the simpler ones.”

“It was awfully one-sided, which I guess I should be happy about…but the story’s not that simple,” wrote Jaquith.

Due to the confidential nature of personnel matters, UVA has refrained from responding on behalf of VQR employees who, bound by the same confidentiality, may feel defenseless. Asked to characterize the treatment of Genoways and herself by UVA, Levinson-LaBrosse uses the word: “Negligent.”

“Ted has worked exhaustively and in good faith at VQR for UVA,” she writes. “He does not deserve for misinformation to propagate.” Levinson-LaBrosse adds that she is no longer an employee of VQR and is unable to confirm “exactly when [her] employment ended.” She was told through her lawyer that her position with VQR was “no longer available.”

“I was given no justification or rationale for this being the case,” adds Levinson-LaBrosse. “I was told I could work in central development or I could resign. Given the fact that the University had stood by while I had been accused of buying my job as a donor at the institution, I did not accept this offer. I resigned.”

Fragmentary narratives

Maria Morrissey says her last conversation with UVA officials took place in mid-August.

“Nancy Rivers e-mailed me to say that Sullivan had expanded her audit to include operational and managerial issues,” says Morrissey, referring to Sullivan’s August 19 statement.

Morrissey says that no “hidden, financial worry” prompted her brother’s death and, to her knowledge, he had never attempted suicide before. “And I think we would know if he had attempted,” she says.

Asked about the response of UVA human resources, Morrissey says, “I feel that the humans involved wanted to help. But without a clear policy, they didn’t know how to help.” 

Genoways, who had not been a regular presence in the VQR office since June and was largely absent as the race towards transition from the President’s office heated up, expresses a similar sentiment.

“There have been multiple reports of the staff individually and collectively going to people in the president’s office in the month before my [Guggenheim] leave to complain about me,” says Genoways. “I wouldn’t have taken the leave if I knew that there were complaints that severe and that pressing. But I didn’t know.”

Asked about the bullying charge that is now indelibly associated with his name and VQR, Genoways denies it.

“No one would be able to conceal this about themselves in this way if there was any substance to what has been said,” says Genoways. “I don’t have one face with authors and another with my staff. I don’t have one with family and friends and another with my staff. It’s just not who I am.”

Since the completion of the fall issue of VQR, Genoways says he has composed a narrative of his history at VQR. “As exceptionally long as it is, it’s also still sort of fragmentary in its current state,” he says. Genoways remains on administrative leave from the University, as do Minturn and McMillen, while UVA works to complete its internal review by a September 30 deadline, a timetable that President Sullivan has said “will be subject to change if unanticipated complexities are discovered.”

A few weeks ago, UVA announced the cancellation of VQR’s winter issue, which was to be guest-edited by Andrew Owen and Michael “Nick” Nichols of LOOK3. VQR’s future home within the University remains unclear.

Asked about UVA’s decision to cancel the winter issue of VQR, Genoways says: “My hope remains that the investigation will conclude at the end of September and I’ll be reinstated.

“And if that happens by October 1, there will still be more than adequate time to complete the winter issue and publish it on schedule,” says Genoways. “That remains my hope and my wish.”

*Correction: C-VILLE previously published that Waldo Jaquith "offered his resignation" on July 26. Rather, Jaquith quit on that date. C-VILLE regrets the error.

Comment Policy