A Charlottesville publication has published excerpts from a string of e-mails that reveal a tense internal dialogue between administrators at the University of Virginia and an editor of its esteemed literary journal in the days before the editor committed suicide.
The correspondence sheds light on what might have been in Kevin Morrissey’s mind in his final days.
For those who have forgotten, Morrissey shot himself in an old coal tower near campus one day in July 2010. A majority of his colleagues on the small staff of the Virginia Quarterly Review alleged that Morrissey had been the target of a workplace bully. His boss, Editor Ted Genoways, attributed Morrissey’s death to his history of depression. Morrissey’s suicide note blamed no one. Many in the literary community rose to Genoways’s defense.
I sought comment on the e-mails and their content from U-Va. spokeswoman Carol Wood and from Genoways, who still edits the Virginia Quarterly Review. Wood declined comment. Genoways said he was not cleared by university officials to discuss the matter.
An internal investigation by the university faulted Genoways for “questionable” management and the institution for weak oversight. It did not directly address whether the top editor bore any responsibility in the death of his employee.
The newly released internal e-mails were published last week by the weekly newspaper The Hook — where they apparently arrived in a mysterious, unmarked package.
The correspondence will make more sense after you have read some of the past coverage of Morrissey’s death. I urge you to click on the links above before you proceed.
The e-mails don’t answer every lingering question about Morrissey’s death, but they do show the managing editor reaching out to the university for help in dealing with his boss.
Here is an excerpt from a July 6, 2010 e-mail Morrissey wrote to Angelee Godbold, a human resources manager at U-Va.:
“If Ted [Genoways] has no desire to improve his skills as a manager, 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, but I’m feeling little optimism that the situation will improve.”
Later in the month, Genoways briefly banned Morrissey from the journal offices over an allegation of unprofessional conduct toward a journal co-worker. Morrissey’s defenders said Genoways acted unreasonably. Genoways said he did the right thing.
“Does Ted have the authority to do this?” Morrissey asked the HR woman July 20.
“Clearly, this is a very painful situation for you and your staff. 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 then seems to have resorted to contacting the president’s office directly. Here is a July 21 message from Morrissey to Joan Fry, special assistant to the president, and Lynda Birckhead, his finance and administration director.
“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 by the University.”
On July 23, the HR woman reassured Morrissey:
“All is well between us, Kevin. 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 July 26, the president’s chief of staff, Nancy Rivers, met with Morrissey. On July 27, he thanked her for the meeting but worried that his complaints were still not being heard.
“The communication difficulties between Ted and myself have been going on for over three years at this point, 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, either through advice given or interaction, the onus was placed on me to deal with the issue.”
By this point, one VQR staffer (Waldo Jaquith) had resigned over differences with Genoways. Morrissey suggested that if university management did not step in, more employees would resign:
“You said you wanted the entire department to ‘move forward, not look back.’ 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.”
On July 29, the chief of staff reassured Morrissey:
“Ted has conveyed to me that he will not micromanage the office and wants you to make independent decisions when possible. Thanks, write anytime!”
On July 30, Morrissey wrote his last note, this one on paper. It read, in part, “I can’t bear it anymore.”