Final days: Emails show VQR's 'awkward workplace scenario'
"At this point, frankly, I feel I have little protection offered by the University, and I see little or no evidence of any oversight of Ted [Genoways] by the University." – Kevin Morrissey in an email to officials in the UVA President's office, July 21, 2010.
"There were reports through the years of the Editor not being courteous or respectful with some contributors and colleagues, as well as problems with certain employees, but none ever seemed to rise to the level of a serious, on-going concern." --UVA investigation of VQR operations, October 20, 2010
Just days after a new publisher and deputy editor joined the staff of the Virginia Quarterly Review, emails between former VQR managing editor Kevin Morrissey–- who took his life on July 30, 2010–- and high-level UVA officials arrived in the Hook office in an unmarked envelope.
Until now, accounts of the events that unfolded that summer came not from Morrissey, but from co-workers, UVA officials, enterprising journalists, and even VQR editor Ted Genoways himself, whose email just two days after Morrissey's death characterized Morrissey as someone whose work was suffering because of internal demons and defended himself against accusations of being a "workplace bully."
While the 52-year old Morrissey's suicide note was too brief to provide much insight into reasons, the leaked emails show he had plenty to say as his life careened toward its tragic end.
With former UVA President John Casteen's tenure coming to a close at the end of the month, July 2010 was a tense time at VQR. The award-winning literary journal had, for decades, operated under the supervision of the President's Office, but with new president Teresa Sullivan's impending arrival, a plan was hatched by Genoways and Casteen to move the operation to the Office of the Vice President of Research.
Away on a fellowship in July, Genoways had recently promoted a 24-year old VQR intern to Assistant Editor/Development Manager, getting her a $38,000 per year position without a formal search. Alana Levinson-LaBrosse was also a major donor, having pledged $1.5 million to UVA's Young Writer's Program; and her father, a Silicon Valley business titan, had committed $20 million to UVA a decade earlier.
During a July 14 meeting between Levinson-LaBrosse, Morrissey, and former Web Editor Waldo Jaquith, the value that Genoways and the President's Office placed on the former intern would be revealed. These emails were exchanged that summer.
"If Ted [Genoways] has no desire to improve his skills as a manger," Morrissey writes to UVA human resources manager Angelee Godbold, asking why Genoways has been allowed to avoid all training classes– even mandatory ones– for managers "and if his current or future supervisor places no importance on his abilities as a manger, what reasonable expectations can I have that HR can bring any weight to bear?
"Sorry to be blunt about this," Morrissey continues, "but I'm feeling little optimism that the situation will improve."
"Know that I appreciate your bluntness," Godbold responds, "you've earned the right to be direct as your work experience has been trying."
Godbold promises to involve Alan Cohn, director of Faculty and Staff Employee Relations, who is cc'd on all her emails.
Genoways writes a 2:30am email banning both Morrissey and former Web Editor Waldo Jaquith from the office for a week because he had received reports of "unacceptable workplace behavior." Genoways forbids them from representing the VQR, limits their work duties, and tells them not to communicate with the rest of the staff until he has a chance to gather more information. Genoways does not tell them what specifically they had done.
"The longer I remain banned from working, the worse it seems for me," Morrissey tells Godbold. "How can I understand how I'm protected given the lack of information I have available? From my perspective, this sounds very troubling."
Unbeknownst to Morrissey at this time, the alleged "unacceptable workplace behavior" stemmed from the July 14 meeting with Levinson-Labrosse, during which, she would later allege, that Morrissey and Jaquith were "rude."
"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," Levinson-Labrosse told C-Ville Weekly.
That was a charge that upset the rest of the close-knit VQR staff.
"Waldo and Kevin were never rude and unprofessional to Alana," former circulation manger Shelia McMillen countered in a Hook story, adding that Morrissey and Jaquith hadn't hindered the compilation of transition materials but that Levinson-Labrosse was "just very offended that they asked whether Kevin ought not to be at some of the meetings about the future of the magazine."
HR's Godbold advises Morrissey to comply with the unusual ban "because we do not want you or Waldo to be labeled as insubordinate. Alan [Cohn] and I have a strategy and do not want either of you adversely impacted in any way."
"Does Ted have the authority to do this?" responds Morrissey. "Am I understanding correctly that my ban from the office and some of my job responsibilities is continuing for the remainder of the week?"
"Clearly, this is a very painful situation for you and your staff," responds Godbold. "Truthfully, it has been for a long time. Admittedly, this is one of the most awkward workplace scenarios in which I've been involved for awhile."
Morrissey emails Casteen's special assistant Joan Fry and his finance and administration director Lynda Birckhead to request a confab ahead of a July 26 meeting arranged to discuss the Genoways accusations.
"I have still not been informed what these specific charges are," writes Morrissey, "and Ted's directive not to report to the office, to restrict my work, and have little or no communication with my colleagues, implies these allegations are quite serious."
Morrissey then says he would like to meet to discuss the "ramifications and procedures for filing a grievance" against Genoways.
"I am concerned that Ted at this time is, in his own words, "conducting an investigation with no oversight," writes Morrissey. "I have concerns that Ted cannot conduct an impartial investigation into an incident to which he was not a witness."
"To be very direct," Morrissey says, "I'm beginning to wonder if I'm in a similar position to what Candace Pugh faced five years ago."
As the Hook would later reveal, Candace Pugh was a former VQR employee who worked for the magazine for 32 years, and who says she was "forced out" by Genoways in 2005.
Like Morrissey, Pugh contacted officials in the President’s office ("The President’s office just stood by and let it happen," Pugh said in an interview) and went on to file a harassment complaint against Genoways, who allegedly ordered her out of the office she had occupied for three decades. In the end, after Pugh hired a lawyer, the University offered her a one-year severance package under condition that no lawsuit would be filed.
"At this point, frankly, I feel I have little protection offered by the University," Morrissey tells Fry and Birckhead, "and I see little or no evidence of any oversight of Ted by the University."
Fry responds by saying she doesn't know how exactly the "grievance procedures to protect employees from abusive supervisors" works, and suggests he contact Godbold. Morrissey quickly writes back.
"My concern is that, as Angelee [Godbold] has expressed to me, that HR has no power over Ted," writes Morrissey. "I would prefer to discuss this issue with someone from the President's Office."
"I don't take the possible filing of a grievance lightly," says Morrissey in an email to Godbold. "I'm well aware that doing so would make matters even worse than they already are, but given the lack of oversight of Ted in the past, I was concerned as to what a reasonable expectation would be for me to have in regard to any relief."
Morrissey also apologizes for contacting officials above her.
"All is well between us, Kevin," writes Godbold. "I support whatever route you choose to take to help bring about resolve in your workplace. It has been rough for you and your staff, and I understand."
On Monday morning, President Casteen’s chief of staff, Nancy Rivers, with Genoways in the room, meets separately with Morrissey and Jaquith. A source says Jaquith asked Genoways to explain why he instituted the week-long ban. Unsatisfied with Genoways' answer, which included the accusation of "behaving in a unprofessional manner" toward Levinson-LaBrosse, Jaquith tenders his resignation.
In a 6am email, Morrissey thanks Rivers for attending the meeting, but says he still found things unresolved.
"Waldo and myself have still not been told what specific 'unacceptable workplace behavior' we were alleged to have committed," writes Morrissey, complaining that too much time was spent talking about the transition to the VPR office.
"Ted has continually used the dire state of the VQR and our move out of the President's Office to deflect any meaningful discussion about the specific workplace issues our office has," he writes.
Again, Morrissey asks what relief he might receive if he were to file a grievance.
"The communication difficulties between Ted and myself have been going on for over three years at this point," Morrissey writes, "and I feel I have made a concerted and conscientious effort to follow through on all UVA prescribed methods for dealing with the issue. I've spoken numerous times to Ted, without gaining a satisfactory response; I've spoken to Lynda and Joan a number of times; I've gone to the Faculty and Employee Assistance Program twice; I've gone to the Office of the Ombudsman; and I have gone to the HR department.
"In every instance," Morrissey continues, "either through advice given or interaction, the onus was placed on me to deal with the issue. At this point, there seems to be only 2 options: the formal mediation process you have proposed or my filing a grievance.
"In my opinion, two of the major issues of this incident are Ted's actions in dealing with Waldo and me and Ted's preferential treatment of Alana, and neither were ever addressed at the meeting. When I asked Ted why he didn't contact me to get my version of events of the 7/14 incident, he said he wanted to talk to everyone face-to-face. But he himself said he spoke to Alana prior to sending me the 7/19 email."
Morrissey also wonders why there were no criticism or suggestions offered for his handling of that meeting with Levinson-Labrosse, and how freely he can "speak about these incidents without suffering retaliation, or if Alana quits, of being blamed for jeopardizing a relationship with a major donor?"
"You said you wanted the entire department to "move forward, not look back," Morrissey tells Rivers. "While I understand the sentiment, my concern is that if Ted's past behavior and his supervision of the staff is not addressed, there will be no incentive for him to make any meaningful changes to improve the situation. And there is a strong likelihood that the rest of the staff, all good employees who have done little or nothing wrong, will follow Waldo's lead."
Morrissey sends a late-day email to Rivers, whose boss was preparing for his last official day in the university's highest office. Morrissey says he was having trouble contacting Genoways about work issues that week, and wants to know if he has the authority to make decisions. Morrissey also asks when the mediation meetings would begin. He ends by apologizing for the "VQR troubles taking up her time."
"I think they are trying to get the meeting set up, but Ted's schedule is the challenge," Rivers responds. "You should handle any editing assignments, and I will back you up. Ted has conveyed to me that he will not micromanage the office and wants you to make independent decisions when possible. Thanks, write anytime!"
Genoways would, however, attempt to micromanage, sending curt, early morning emails to Morrissey and VQR staffer Molly Minturn reprimanding them for work-related issues.
Three days after Morrissey asked Genoways if he wanted to respond to an email by a Mexican journalist covering that nation's deadly drug wars, Genoways accuses Morrissey, by not forwarding the email to Genoways sooner, of endangering the journalist's life.
"I found that email open on Kevin's iPhone," Morrissey's sister, Maria Morrissey, told the Hook. "It was sent from Ted at 9:47am. Kevin wrote his suicide note about an hour later."
As Casteen began wrapping up his last official day in office, Morrissey calmly called 911 to report his own shooting.
"Please tell Gwenyth [Swain, an old friend] I'm sorry," Morrissey's suicide note read. "I know she won't understand, but I can't bear it anymore."
He also asked that his body be cremated, that there be no ceremony, and he left his work contact as Nancy Rivers. Ted Genoways did not return a reporter's contacts for comment on this story.