Tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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Sept. 27 2010 5:26 PM

Tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review

The suicide of its managing editor has been blamed on workplace bullying. New details suggest the real story is much more complicated.

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's  series on cyberbullying

Ted Genoways. Click image to expand.
Ted Genoways

On July 30, Kevin Morrissey, the 52-year-old managing editor of the small but acclaimed literary journal the Virginia Quarterly Review, shot himself in a coal tower near the University of Virginia, which publishes the journal. At first, the suicide reverberated only among his shocked and sorrowed colleagues, friends, and family. Then, in mid-August, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article called "What Killed Kevin Morrissey?" The piece reported that, according to Morrissey's family and "people close to the review," he had complained to UVA about "workplace bullying by his boss,"VQR editor Ted Genoways. 

The narrative of a suicide caused by a workplace bully was off and running. A week and a half later, the Today Show reported that Morrissey's suicide note blamed Genoways. In an e-mail to VQR contributors, Genoways himself said that Morrissey's family had told him this was so. The Hook, an alternative weekly in Charlottesville, Va., quoted psychologist Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute saying that Genoways used "classic tactics employed by bullies" that "are not completely unlike torture."

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What does it mean to be a workplace bully? For kids, bullying is defined as repeated acts of verbal or physical abuse in a situation where there's a power imbalance between the bully and the bullied. But in the workplace, there is almost always a hierarchy; power imbalances are necessarily part of the equation. That doesn't mean bad behavior can't be policed. Sexual harassment suits do just that. But bosses and employees aren't peers the way school kids are. The leaders of companies and departments have to dictate rules and give orders and occasionally reprimand employees who are falling short on the job—they have to be bossy. It's possible to imagine a scenario in which a boss (or a group of co-workers) deliberately persecutes an employee—sabotaging his work, playing nasty pranks. But is every demanding, gruff boss a bully? Where is the line between mismanagement and harassment? And can a boss ever be held responsible for an employee's decision to kill himself?

A closer look at what happened at VQR, informed by conversations with Genoways and most of his colleagues and by examining internal e-mails sent in the run-up to Morrissey's death, suggests that while the VQR staff was unhappy with their boss, bullying may not be the right label for his behavior. The accusation that Genoways is to blame for Morrissey's suicide is even more questionable. Genoways has been branded as a workplace bully in part because a small band of advocates, which includes Gary Namie, saw in Morrissey's death an opportunity to spotlight their cause and jumped on it. In contrast to the black-and-white story of villainy they've promoted, what happened at VQR is complicated, and several key details have not yet been told. 

A year ago, John Casteen III announced that he would retire as UVA president. This was a big deal for VQR. Casteen had hired Genoways in 2003 when he was a 31-year-old poet and an editor at a small press in Minnesota. Genoways reported directly to Casteen, and the president twice renewed the editor's contract and was his steadfast champion. VQR is tiny. It had a staff of six, including Genoways and Morrissey, and a circulation of less than 5,000. But under Genoways' leadership, it became enormously ambitious editorially. Genoways sent contributors all over the world. He ran gritty war reportingalongside well-received fiction and poetry. The latest issue, which hasn't been published and which was finished amid the turmoil following Morrissey's death, is titled "The Price of Paperless: Inside the Mines that Feed the Tech Revolution" and features reporting and photographs from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Congo, India, Kosovo, and Peru. VQR's new ambition—and the high quality of its journalism—was recognized by the industry. In 2006, the journal earned six National Magazine Award nominations. It carried off two trophies that year and has earned two more since.

But despite its editorial success, VQR is hardly a moneymaker. In the fine tradition of small literary magazines, it relies on the kindness of a university to stay afloat. Strangely, in the aftermath of Morrissey's suicide, several Genoways detractors have blasted him for spending money to send reporters to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, accusing him of mismanaging the journal's finances as well its staff. But Genoways was able to pay for this reporting because he'd inherited an $800,000 slush fund, money that the previous editor had squirreled away over more than 20 years. Genoways says he could not sit on those funds. "The university told me, you have to spend it fast, or we will reclaim it," he told me. So he invested the money in the writing and photography that placed the once-staid journal in the literary limelight.

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Kevin Morrissey (center)

When Casteen announced his departure, about $150,000 was left in the slush fund, Genoways says. For him, the prospect of a new university president meant uncertainty about the magazine's future. "There was a kind of pressure mounting," he said. "A bunch of these university-sponsored journals have shut down in the last two years, and, of course, plenty of commercial magazines are in the same straits. We're at a complete transition point in publishing history, and the last thing you want is someone who doesn't know anything about the business to come in and judge you outside of that context."

Casteen told Genoways that with his departure, VQR would have to find another place in the university's organizational structure—it would need to have a base outside the president's office. Genoways started making calls and found a potential new home with UVA's vice president for research. With the help of Jeffrey Plank, the second in command in that office, Genoways came up with a plan he hoped would tie the magazine more closely to the university's academic mission. Genoways had tried before to do this by getting a tenured position in UVA's English department. But that hadn't worked, so now he looked elsewhere. His new plan was to create a center comprising VQR, a photography festival called LOOK3, and the university's Young Writers Workshop for high-school students. "I'd been trying to build an academic component for VQR, and that's what this would bring us," he said.

Genoways also wanted to raise money for VQR on his own. He hoped the new center would make it easier for VQR to compete for outside grants, and he wanted to attract individual donors. He set a goal of $3 million. To help in this effort, he hired Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, a 24-year-old UVA graduate.

Levinson-LaBrosse is young. She is also wealthy. Her father, Frank Levinson, a Forbes 400 fiber-optics entrepreneur, has been a major UVA donor—in 2000, he and his wife committed $20 million to the university. Levinson-LaBrosse has given $1.5 million of her own money. In some of the coverage of Morrissey's suicide, Levinson-LaBrosse has been cast as a pampered interloper. I came away with a different impression after talking with her. She was thoughtful about what had gone wrong at VQR and smart about trying to make it attractive to donors, in part because she belongs to a network of them (though she didn't plan to give money to the magazine, she says). I could understand why Genoways hired her.

But the rest of the VQR staff did not. Associate editors Molly Minturn and Sheila McMillen told me that along with Morrissey and Waldo Jaquith   (the journal's Web editor until he left last summer), they didn't believe that Genoways needed to raise money or worry about VQR's future. "I went to a couple of lunches with Kevin and the head finance person in the president's office," Minturn said. "She assured us numerous times that our operating funds were part of the permanent budget no matter who the new president was, and we really shouldn't be concerned about losing our jobs or VQR shutting down." Genoways counters that this reassurance was meaningless, since it would be the new president, not the people who worked for the old one, who would decide VQR's fate. But the staff wasn't and isn't persuaded. "We couldn't understand why Ted was in a panic even though the president's office kept telling us not to worry," McMillen says. "It was like he was having a paranoid psychotic episode."

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