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Morrissey’s plight: As Sullivan probes, new VQR details emerge

by Hawes Spencer
published 10:32am Saturday Aug 21, 2010
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cover-vqr-hookcover-iFollowing the suicide of Morrissey (inset), UVA president Teresa Sullivan has commissioned a “thorough review” of VQR management.

With the story behind the suicide of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s managing editor Kevin Morrissey making national news and new UVA President Teresa Sullivan intensifying her probe of the troubled journal, new information arises about the quandary facing Morrissey, including his own unwillingness to file an official complaint.

President Sullivan approved a financial audit two weeks ago but announced a broader examination Thursday, August 19, about three weeks after the suicide and one day after an in-depth article by Dave McNair appeared online, airing concerns about VQR’s questionable hiring practices, strange emails, dwindling finances, potential conflicts, and prior bullying allegations.

Now, there’s new information uncovered by McNair that shows that UVA had taken steps to educate employees and fight office bullying, but the University stopped short of enacting policies.

Former UVA President John Casteen, whose office long supported the award-winning VQR, has thus far declined to enter the fray. Meanwhile, while an alienated staff puts together the fall issue, embattled VQR editor Ted Genoways, who has retained a lawyer to fight the bullying allegations, remains on leave with a Guggenheim fellowship.

“They are trying to play you,” says Genoways lawyer Lloyd Snook in reference to those asserting the bullying allegations, which, because they involve personnel matters, he declines to specifically discuss. “We are looking forward to the investigation that President Sullivan is calling for,” says Snook, “because we assume that in that investigation, we will actually have some specifics to which we may respond.”

Multiple sources indicate that Morrissey, before taking his life, sought help from various UVA departments, including Human Resources, the President’s Office, and University Ombudsman Brad Holland, who— citing confidentiality agreements— declined to discuss Morrissey’s case.

Holland laments the fact that UVA has no formal anti-bullying policies in place and hopes Sullivan’s probe might lead to enacting some. It was Holland who, a little over a year ago, led the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs into inviting Canada-based workplace bullying expert Valerie Cade to Grounds for what’s been described as UVA’s first-ever anti-bullying workshops.

Since her April 2009 series at the Harrison/Small Library (which she says drew 600 people), Cade says she has worked closely with Holland to help UVA quash bullying. Most recently, she says she has been consulting on the VQR debacle, and plans to visit to provide assistance in September. Cade contends that UVA officials did as much as they could to help Morrissey.

“It’s very likely that his boss was a bully, but Kevin never filed a formal complaint,” says Cade. “UVA offered him time off, employee counseling, and a chance to switch departments, but Kevin was the one who didn’t do anything.”

valeriecade“It’s very likely that his boss was a bully,” says Valerie Cade, a workplace bullying expert who has consulted with UVA, “but Kevin never filed a formal complaint. ”

Likening the situation to a rape victim who— fearing retribution or the onslaught of attention— won’t press criminal charges, Cade suggests that if a bullying victim won’t file a formal complaint, there’s little chance of fixing the problem.

“Regardless of how much [authorities] might want to help,” says Cade, “there’s not much they can do.”

However, a long-time UVA employee the Hook spoke to suggests that Cade’s rape analogy doesn’t accurately characterize Morrissey’s situation. How many victims of rape would file charges, the employee asks, if they knew they had to continue working for, or attend mediation sessions with, their attacker?

“If you file a grievance, at the very end you have to say what you would like the remedy to be,” says the employee. “ Asking that your boss be fired or investigated is hardly what you can list as your remedy without facing extreme retaliation.”

What’s more, says the employee, once you file a grievance, you have to go through mediation.

“Which is like asking an abused wife to air to someone her complaints about her husband,” says the employee, “ knowing that she’ll have to be alone with him later on at home.”

Indeed, Ombudsman Holland asserts that most bullied UVA employees decline his offers to intervene or to contact the bully, for fear of jeopardizing jobs in a town that lacks other major employers. In academia especially, adds Holland, recommendations from superiors are crucial to advancement.

“I spend a lot of time with bullying victims,” says Holland, “trying to assess their mental strength, because it’s tough to help someone who is immersed in this if they’re not prepared to deal with it.”

Holland says he’s seen bullying victims experience severe exhaustion— even physical illness.

“It really destroys you, really beats you down,” says Holland. “Bullies pick vulnerable targets. But if you stand up to them, they often move on to someone else, or change tactics.”

Consultant Cade worries that the recent spate of media coverage has overshadowed the many bullying cases UVA has successfully overcome, along with the fact that many in the University “definitely” want to enact preventive policies. She says she made a proposal for the medical faculty, but the combination of budget cuts and institutional inertia stalled the effort.

“Not everyone was on board,” she says. “It’s very hard to get a whole organization to embrace this, but we were on our way to planting the seeds.”

While Cade emphasizes that an incorrigible bully “even if he or she is a top performer” should be ousted, she says her approach also attempts to correct the misbehavior. Still, with no firm policies in place, and with the boss answering only to former president Casteen, Cade concedes that Morrissey may not have felt confident enough to file a formal complaint, and Cade’s not the only anti-bullying authority to assert that VQR’s report-to-the-president structure could create trouble.

“Genoways was in an ideal situation to commit abuse, with only one boss, the University president, who wasn’t about to micromanage him,” says the director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, Gary Namie

Because accusations of abuse preceded Morrissey’s death, Namie says the case may serve as a call to action. Indeed, President Sullivan asserts in her statement that she’s considering “corrective actions” even as UVA remains “strongly committed” to VQR.

“President Sullivan inherited this,” says Namie, “but she could show leadership by really addressing it, instead of another Band-Aid.”

–with additional reporting by Dave McNair

To comment on this story, please go to the Hook’s original story: Tale of Woe: The Death of the VQR’s Kevin Morrissey.

Update 8/22

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