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Stanford Confidential: Sex, Lies And Loathing At The World’s No. 1 B-School

In her “story” on the LeanIn.org website, Gruenfeld, 54, writes: “. . . I got married the same year I got tenure. I was pregnant with my first child when I arrived at Stanford. In 2005, my second child, a toddler, was diagnosed with cancer. As of this month, she is considered fully recovered. But now I am weathering a painful divorce.”

Former GSB professor Jim Phills in his Harvard wrestling days - Harvard Crimson photo

Former GSB professor Jim Phills in his Harvard wrestling days – Harvard Crimson photo

Phills, an intercollegiate champion heavyweight wrestler in his undergraduate days at Harvard, describes himself of late in a court filing as “a largely sedentary and overweight academic.” He served as faculty director of the GSB’s Center for Social Innovation from 2000 to 2009.

IN THE COMPANY OF GENIUS

Gruenfeld, before coming to Stanford, had been a professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management from 1993 to 2000. Two years after arriving at Stanford she was named a fellow of the Stanford-linked Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, putting her in the fellowship company of 22 Nobel laureates and 44 winners of MacArthur “Genius Grants.” 

Phills says in court filings he has no evidence his wife and the dean had a sexual relationship before October 2012. But he says in a divorce-case filing, “more than one person has indicated that there were overtures and invitations as early as of (sic) the end of June” – the month Gruenfeld moved out. And he says his wife once confessed to him that she and Saloner had an intimate conversation and embraced in her office in 2008 or 2009. “She was reluctant to tell me about this and clearly felt some sense of guilt,” Phills says in a divorce filing.

Emails between Saloner and Gruenfeld from August 2012 show them planning a hike. An investigator hired by Stanford later reported that at the time of the outing in the grassy, oak-dappled hills above Stanford, “Gruenfeld did not think that there was anything romantic in the works between them, and she doesn’t think Saloner did either.”

A MAN AND A WOMAN WALK INTO A BAR…

In an exchange via their Stanford email accounts after the hike, Saloner says, “Thanks for this morning. It felt really good spending that time with you,” and Gruenfeld responds, “Ditto, thanks for the invitation.”

It was not until October 2012 that Gruenfeld began to think her relationship with Saloner might become “more personal,” according to the report by investigator Marcia Pope, a lawyer with the San Francisco office of the Pillsbury law firm. Gruenfeld and Saloner had attempted to go for a drink in downtown Palo Alto but had walked into an establishment to find “the place was full of GSB colleagues,” Pope reports. “The two felt awkward about the situation, so they ended up going back to Saloner’s house, where they shared a glass of wine in the kitchen. Professor Gruenfeld described the interaction as ‘warm and personal.’” 

COURT BATTLES OVER ‘EXTREMELY INTIMATE’ PHOTOS, MESSAGES

In a May court ruling on the lawsuit parties’ disputes over introduction of communications between Saloner and Gruenfeld, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Beth McGowan writes that Gruenfeld became romantically involved with Saloner “around the same time” as Phills and Gruenfeld separated in June 2012. Stanford, in a Sept. 14 press release says the relationship between Saloner and Gruenfeld started “several months” after Gruenfeld and Phills separated. Court records indicate the relationship between Saloner and Gruenfeld is ongoing.

Arguments over communications between Saloner and Gruenfeld – including messages and photos that lawyers for Saloner and Stanford call “extremely intimate” and “extremely private” – make up the vast majority of the filings in Phills’ lawsuit. Phills is fighting for copies of all communications he considers relevant to his lawsuit, while Saloner and Stanford are battling to keep communications between Saloner and Gruenfeld out of the court case and away from public view. Lawyers for Phills argue that communications between Saloner and Gruenfeld reveal Saloner’s “animus” toward Phills and Saloner’s desire to push him off the campus. Lawyers for Saloner and Stanford claim Phills seeks to introduce the material in court to “embarrass and harass” his estranged wife and Saloner; the attorneys describe Phills’ request for the photos as “voyeuristic.”

STANFORD GOES TO DIVORCE COURT

Saloner and Stanford have even intervened in the ongoing divorce case between Phills and Gruenfeld, seeking to prevent public disclosure of the messages between the dean and Gruenfeld. The actual divorce proceedings, including division of family assets, have been delayed as Phills’ lawyers seek records of communications between his wife and Saloner, and lawyers for Stanford and Saloner seek to block such access. Phills’ lawyers argue the exchanges between Saloner and Gruenfeld show Gruenfeld’s failure to abide by her fiduciary duty to her husband and are therefore relevant to the divorce dispute. Lawyers for Stanford and Saloner argue that the exchanges are confidential and irrelevant to the divorce.