The ‘Rock Star’ Prof At The Center Of The Stanford GSB Storm

GSB professor Deborah Gruenfeld in a screenshot from a video presentation for

GSB professor Deborah Gruenfeld in a screenshot from a video presentation for

Deborah Gruenfeld knows a lot about power. As one of the leading social psychologists at an elite business school, she’s been deeply immersed in the psychology of power and how to smartly use it for nearly a quarter of a century.  But in the past week the rock star professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business has unwittingly found herself powerless in a scandal that has attracted explosive media attention all over the world.

Gruenfeld, 54, is the woman who left her husband of 13 years and began a romantic relationship with the man who is her boss and the school’s dean, Garth Saloner. It didn’t help matters that her husband, Jim Phills, 55, was also on the faculty of the business school and has aggressively gone after the school, the university, his wife, and her lover in two separate court actions.

After gathering force month after month out of view, the storm finally broke earlier this week. Since last spring, the accusations that would lead to the downfall of the dean in the world’s No. 1 business school had been piling up page by page in two courthouses, unseen by all but the players, their lawyers, and a few California state court judges. The seeds of Saloner’s fall lay scattered throughout a divorce case between the two professors, and in a lawsuit by Phills who alleges Saloner railroaded him out of the business school while sleeping with his wife.


Sprinkled through court records of the two cases are bits of email, text, and Facebook conversations between the leader of the GSB and his female subordinate, and from these snippets emerges a sexually charged tale of star-crossed love, of a pair of academics more than a half-century old behaving like giddy teenagers – and, if the lawsuit and divorce-court claims are to be believed, plotting like Soviet apparatchiks to banish the woman’s husband from the GSB and trounce him in the divorce. 

The woman at the center of the storm is a brilliant and engaging organizational professor. Gruenfeld, 54, is a board member of the women’s leadership group who has parlayed her social psychology research on power dynamics into a career lucrative for herself and for the school. Indeed, the lawsuit provides a rare glimpse into the gold-standard pay and platinum-standard perks that come with the job of professor at an elite B-school. 

In the divorce case between the two Stanford professors, their annual incomes are listed for the past several years. While the numbers are not broken down to show how much each made in GSB salary, their combined income for each of the three years leading up to their separation in 2012 suggests they were very well compensated, hauling in $511,000 to $593,000 annually. Gruenfeld’s individual income after the separation is documented in a divorce filing, and appears to have taken a big leap: on her own, she made $487,000 in 2012; $462,000 in 2013; and $504,000 last year. (Phills, too, has made hay from his B-school career. After he went on leave from the GSB in 2012 to work at Apple University, the tech giant’s internal training facility, Phills made $769,000 that year, and the figure would rise fast, to $1.2 million in 2013 and $1.7 million last year.)


Gruenfeld’s superstar status was solidified more recently when she landed a $1.1 million advance from Crown Business for what will be her first big non-fiction work, tentatively titled Acting With Power. In a market where advances for business books more typically range between $50,000 and $100,000, Gruenfeld’s big payday was a surprise to many in the publishing industry, especially since it occurred after Little Brown paid what industry insiders say was a $1 million advance for a similar book by Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School professor who boasts the second-most-viewed TED talk in history.

“A $1 million advance would be in the 99th percentile for non-fiction books,” says Adrian Zackheim, the veteran president and publisher of non-fiction at Penguin Group USA. “But there is a lot of exuberance in the air, and this book was very skillfully sold.” Gruenfeld’s book sold is a heated auction and is expected to be published in the spring of 2017.

Gruenfeld’s narrative reveals a whip smart, aspiring professional who has successfully made a novel transition to the upper reaches of business school academia from, of all places, journalism, public relations, and social psychology. After earning a B.A. in pyschology from Cornell University in 1983, she decided to try her hand at journalism and gained a master’s degree in the field from New York University in 1985. Her interest in communications was short-lived, though an early incident became a path to her eventual career as an academic.

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