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

Stanford GSB professor Deborah Gruenfeld

Stanford GSB professor Deborah Gruenfeld

Lawyers for Saloner and Stanford accuse Phills of illegally hacking into his wife’s university email, private email, and social media accounts, and stealing her private communications. Phills does not deny accessing Gruenfeld’s accounts before and after she moved out, and argues that he and Gruenfeld knew each other’s passwords and shared access to the accounts. He also says Gruenfeld had regularly used his devices to access her email and Facebook accounts, so her passwords were saved and would autofill. “I was able to save or print screenshots of some Facebook messages before Dean Saloner and my wife deliberately purged them after I notified Stanford of my concerns about their clandestine relationship,” Phills writes in a declaration to the court for his lawsuit. Phills says he didn’t access Gruenfeld’s Facebook or Stanford email accounts after Nov. 30, 2012. Saloner says in a deposition that he deleted his Facebook accounts after he suspected Phills had seen them.

Gruenfeld says she never gave her husband permission to access her e-mail, other electronic accounts, or personal correspondence. But in court documents, Phills relates an incident he claims occurred in in November 2012 when Phills and Gruenfeld were separated but not yet estranged. Phills says he and Gruenfeld and their daughters were at the dinner table when Gruenfeld complained that her cell phone was running slowly and crashing and asked him to look at it. Phills says he he suspected the device may have been overloaded with messages, and when he checked the email application, found a Gmail dialog between his wife and the dean, he claims. He says he had already learned that his wife and Saloner were having an affair but still “… was surprised by the explicit sexual content…”


In any case, Phills’s lawyers have introduced into court records, via the lawsuit and divorce case, enough of Saloner’s correspondence with Gruenfeld and school administration to suggest that the dean wanted Phills out of the GSB and that he made crucial decisions concerning Phills after beginning the affair with Gruenfeld while purportedly recusing himself. 

Phills alleges Saloner attempted to damage him financially and emotionally while working to advance Gruenfeld’s interests in her divorce proceedings.“(Saloner) and Gruenfeld actively sought to force (Phills) out of the house on campus for their own ends of discouraging (Phills) from remaining in his position at Stanford in the same department as Saloner and Gruenfeld,” Phills’ lawsuit complaint says. Phills claims the GSB, under Saloner’s leadership, also removed him as director of executive education programs he had developed and taught for years on top of his MBA-program duties, replacing him with less-qualified faculty. “Subsequently, Professor Phills was not even invited to teach in the very programs that he had created, even though these programs used teaching materials and a textbook that he had authored,” Phills’s complaint says.

An email in a court filing, to Phills from senior associate dean Madhav Rajan, says faculty selection for executive education courses is done at a level below the dean’s office.


Phills accuses Stanford Provost Etchemendy of harassing and intimidating him and has argued in written negotiations with Etchemendy that he couldn’t return from leave into a hostile workplace, under the supervision of the man dating his wife. Phills had gone on unpaid leave from his full-time position at the GSB in May 2012 to begin working at Apple but continued to teach several courses through June 2014, compensated for some but not for others. 

Etchemendy, in a March 2014 letter demanding that Phills resign from Apple and return to full-time duties at the GSB, says the university investigated “every specific allegation” Phills made regarding claimed retaliation by Saloner and a hostile work environment and found them “without merit.”

A lawyer for Saloner, Michael Lucey, a partner in the San Francisco office of Gordon & Rees, said in a Sept. 12 statement to Poets&Quants: “As the months passed after [Phills’s] November 2012 deadline to return, Prof. Phills refused to return to Stanford, despite repeated requests from the Provost that he do so. Ultimately, after several extensions that extended his leave by several quarters, Prof. Phills was given the choice to either return to the faculty or face termination. He chose termination.”


Lawyers for Saloner and Stanford claim that the dean and university acted out of legitimate, business-related considerations; that any damage to Phills was done by himself; that Phills brought about his own termination from the GSB by refusing to return from leave; and that by hacking into his wife’s communications, he violated university policy and state and federal laws. The lawyers for Saloner and Stanford have asked the court in the lawsuit case for permission to file a “cross complaint” – a lawsuit within a lawsuit – against Phills, alleging invasion of privacy.

The lawyers for Saloner and Stanford also claim Phills is trying to use his lawsuit “to torment his estranged wife and extract discovery that may be used against her in the divorce case.”

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