Read the rest of Emily Bazelon’s series on cyberbullying.
Late this summer, the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of the literary journal the Virginia Quarterly Review, became a cause célèbre for those concerned about workplace bullying. After a lot of bad press, the University of Virginia, VQR’s home, promised an investigation. This week, the university released a nine-page audit report that is the result. It is a weirdly inconclusive document that does little to clear up the confusion surrounding the strife at VQR that preceded Morrissey’s death.
The report starts by saying there were “no specific allegations of bullying or harassment prior to July 30.” That is the date of Morrissey’s death (though the report doesn’t even say that). As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, this statement suggests that the university rejects the allegations of workplace bullying that Morrissey’s sister, Maria, has made. These allegations have some support from members of the staff of VQR, which split bitterly in the year before the death of Morrissey, who had battled clinical depression for years. Instead of bullying, the report says that complaints about editor Ted Genoways “were mostly viewed by others as conflicts between a creative, innovative manager and persons who did not share the Editor’s aspirations.”
But the report criticizes Genoways, too. After crediting him for the magazine’s editorial success and prominence, the report notes, “However, not everyone has managerial skill, and the Editor’s capacity to supervise and lead his staff well, and to operate his department in accordance with University policies, is questionable.”
Which policies? The report doesn’t say, citing employee confidentiality throughout as the reason for not providing details. There is a recommendation for “appropriate corrective action,” but no call to fire Genoways.
Meanwhile, the report lets everyone else at the university off the hook, in one blanket sentence: “Appropriate actions were taken by the institution.” That seems to absolve the human-resources department and the president’s office of any wrongdoing, even though both Genoways and VQR staff members who were angry with him say they asked for help from those offices and didn’t get it. “I told them, you have a real situation in the office and you need to step in,” VQR associate editor Molly Minturn told me when I talked to her last month. “I said to HR, Kevin is suicidal.” (She and Sheila McMillen, also an associate editor at VQR, declined to comment for this story. McMillen told the Hook, an alternative weekly in Charlotesville, that she found the report “extremely disappointing.”)
Genoways says he also asked HR for guidance when he decided to ask Morrissey and another VQR staffer, Waldo Jaquith, to stay home for a week in July—a decision that caused bitterness and dissension. Instead of offering advice, Genoways says the HR manager he consulted told him to look at UVA’s guidelines for Corrective & Progressive Disciplinary Action. Genoways did, and then he adapted language from the guidelines and told Morrissey and Jaquith to work from home because of their “unacceptable workplace behavior.” Pretty much everyone agrees that this was a disastrous moment in the breakdown of the relationship between Genoways and his staff; the report says nothing with clarity about HR’s role in this decision or its handling of any of the complaints of VQR staffers.
The report also includes this opaque statement:
The Audit Department found that some individuals made incorrect assumptions, regarding other institutional personnel, without necessarily being based on or aware of all the facts. Recollections were not entirely accurate when compared to written records, and presumptions regarding the projected behavior and responsibilities of certain individuals were not on target.
This suggests some of the press accounts about the conflict at VQR relied on wrong information. But which ones? Is it the accusations of bullying that weren’t accurate, or something else? The report says only that the university can’t “clarify some of the misunderstandings and assumptions.” When I asked UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood about this, she said she couldn’t respond except to say “I think the report is clear on areas of concern regarding management of employees.”
Except, perhaps, for one new detail that reads as embarrassing for Genoways. The audit report talks about “a possible unapproved subvention involving a $2,000 payment by VQR to a publisher to subsidize printing costs for the Editor’s poetry.” This involves a payment to the University of Georgia Press for a book of Genoways’ poetry called Anna, Washing. The press decided to publish the book after it went through anonymous peer review, according to a former editor there. But because poetry books like this one aren’t expected to sell enough copies to break even, they’re often published with a payment from the author, called a subvention.
Genoways says that he intended for the subvention to be paid out of an account, established by the UVA president’s office at his hiring, to cover costs associated with his research and creative work. He says he showed the university auditor an e-mail chain to establish this. It includes e-mails from Morrissey about the payment, because he was in charge of VQR’s finances. In an e-mail dated last March, Morrissey says to Genoways that when the invoice for Anna, Washing and another publication arrived, “you directed me to have UGA Press split the invoices because ‘Anna, Washing’ was going to be paid out of another (non-VQR) account.” Morrissey also sent an e-mail to the press saying that the payment for Genoways’ book would come from a University of Virginia account, not VQR.
But in the end, the subvention for Genoways’ book was paid out of a VQR account. “I don’t know why,” Genoways says. It’s another question the university has left dangling.
Carol Wood says that “important changes will be made to daily operations and management responsibilities of VQR.” Also that the magazine will keep publishing. For now, Genoways, Minturn, and McMillen are all still on staff. (The other two members of VQR’s staff of six have left.) Given all the acrimony and recriminations, it’s not clear how they’re supposed to be colleagues again—McMillen has said that she and Minturn don’t want to work with Genoways. And given the vagueness of the audit report, it looks like we’ll never have a definitive account of the events leading up to Morrissey’s death.