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Anatomy Of A Rebellion: Inside The Revolt Against Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner on campus - Ethan Baron photo

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner on campus in August 2015            – Ethan Baron photo

Looking back, it’s no surprise that when six former high-powered staffers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business came to university Provost John Etchemendy’s office in May of last year to detail claimed workplace abuses by GSB Dean Garth Saloner, Etchemendy’s initial response was, essentially, “Talk to the hand.” After all, Etchemendy himself had enabled one such abuse in the world’s No. 1 business school, one that would later contribute to the dean’s fall – but the half dozen staffers didn’t know that at the time. They wanted Saloner out, and a commitment to action by the Provost on what they believed was a dysfunctional GSB administration. What they got, at least two of them say, was a whitewash.

The six, all women, all highly esteemed for their work in prominent positions in and out of the GSB, and with decades of combined experience at the school, were representing what’s become known as the “Group of 46.” This was a group composed of 27 current and 19 former GSB employees who had signed a letter sent to the Provost two weeks earlier, on April 21, 2014, accusing Saloner of presiding over a “hostile workplace” in which staff, particularly women and people over 40, were hounded out of jobs and roles amid numerous violations of Stanford’s Code of Conduct and HR policies.

Anger and frustration toward Saloner had been building for years among employees. Leaders of the staff revolt portray Saloner as an arrogant narcissist who used staff as pawns in his power plays, meted out punishments against anyone who disagreed with him, and manipulated women out of influential positions so he could surround himself with “yes men.”

For a school whose lofty mission is proudly proclaimed to “change lives, change organizations, change the world,” one thing seemed certain. In the five years that Saloner has served as dean, he had changed the collegial, close-knit culture of the school to what his detractors say was a culture of fear and intimidation, where the back-stabbing politics were so thick that few would dare challenge him.

REVOLT TAKES SHAPE IN SPACE OF A LONG WEEKEND

It would be one perceived retribution that would tip staff over the edge into action and lead the six women into Etchemendy’s office-suite conference room.

That so many current staff signed the letter testifies to the strong feelings against Saloner’s leadership, revolt leaders say. “They were so fearful of retribution,” says Sharon Hoffman, one of the delegation to Etchemendy. Remarkable measures were taken to collect 46 signatures in the short window of a three-day holiday weekend. Any longer, they worried, might allow Saloner to hear about the revolt and crush it. The university ombudsman agreed to let current staff phone in to have their signatures registered on the letter but their identities kept secret. And the leaders of the rebellion believe many more current and former staff would have signed the letter if they weren’t afraid of retribution or other negative fallout. 

Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy

Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy

On the early May morning in the Provost’s chambers, the half dozen representatives of the Group of 46 formed a formidable united front. They had combined leadership experience of 60 years in high positions at the GSB. One had headed the MBA program for almost 11 years. Another had run the school’s Center for Social Innovation for a decade. A third had spent nearly a dozen years in charge of the GSB Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. A fourth was the founding executive director of the GSB Center for Leadership Development and Research.

And this was, overwhelmingly, a group deeply invested in Stanford and the business school: five of the six delegates had degrees from the university, and four of them had an MBA or PhD from the Graduate School of Business.

One of the women, Maria Jenson, had three degrees from Stanford – a BS in industrial engineering, a master’s in higher education administration, and an MBA. It was her ouster from the school that ignited the staff campaign to topple Saloner from the deanship.