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

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner and professor Deborah Gruenfeld - Daily Mail photo

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner and professor Deborah Gruenfeld – Daily Mail photo

The GSB, too, has capitalized on Gruenfeld’s talents for pricey executive-education programs. She’s faculty co-director of a six-day, $13,000 “Executive Program for Women Leaders,” scheduled for next May, and next September she teaches in a 10-day “Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders,” costing $4,300 to $10,900 depending on organization size. Her work in those programs would bring income additional to her base salary.


Of course, the high and mighty are not immune to the trials, fears, and doubts of life as a human – or to the outcomes when human unions fall apart. Gruenfeld and Phills, the couple who once blogged together on their program for healthy family living, have been tied up for 2 1/2 years in a divorce chock full of deeply personal revelations about each, from Phills’s discovery of his wife’s affair, to her love-struck conversations with the dean. But it’s one document in particular, introduced by Phills in the lawsuit, that is perhaps most revealing about Gruenfeld, who turns out to be a living, breathing example of the gender-role conflicts at the center of her research and teaching. 

A little more than a year before her separation from Phills, she wrote to her life coach about her fear of losing herself within her marriage. “If I’m not careful, if I don’t stick to the plans that I make for myself, I will disappear,” she writes. “Once I start worrying about what Jim wants it is all over for me. I can’t think straight… I am paralyzed, not wanting to make a wrong move for fear of setting him off or disappointing him… I can’t even tell if he is treating me fairly or not. His work demands, his need for exercise, to see his friends, to take fun trips, to go out at night, to watch TV, all take precedence… I don’t take care of myself or feel good about myself. Before long there is nothing left of me. I have no voice, no presence in my own life.”


Gruenfeld writes that she has gone to great lengths in her life to keep from disappearing, saved from that fate largely by her work. “I pursued a highly absorbing academic career and devoted myself to it totally. The career gave me permission to claim my voice, to be seen and heard, to disagree and assert my truth. It has been a lifeline for me.”

After she married Phills, though, Gruenfeld started to vanish, she writes. She played low. “I worried that anything I did that did not serve his interests directly would make him angry, jealous, hateful, bored, whatever. I started giving myself away. I backed away from work, fearing that my continued successes would intimidate him and he would be resentful. I took over raising the kids, entirely, putting their interests, friends, schedules, growth and development, ahead of mine.”


Gruenfeld has weathered far more serious troubles than a divorce and sex scandal, however. In 2005, her youngest of two daughters was diagnosed with cancer. With this crisis, too, she would struggle to balance her role as a mother with her high-profile job. “I considered going on leave, and tried to get comfortable with the idea that my career might actually be over,” she writes in her “story” on The dean at the time, Robert Joss, offered to lighten her workload. “I accepted with caution, not knowing what was coming, hoping that I would not let him down and that I would be there for my daughter and the rest of our family as much as both they and I needed.

“During the 2 1/2 years that my daughter was in treatment, I was on the front lines of her care, accompanying her to the hospital for countless scheduled procedures, administering a rigorous regimen of medications at home that had to be taken at certain times under certain conditions, many of which she hated, watching for side effects, and on occasion rushing her to the emergency room with late night fevers and other complications. It was brutal, stressful, scary, and at times overwhelming. In the beginning, I went to my office at Stanford just to close the door and cry.” Her daughter, she writes, fully recovered.

But now, as Gruenfeld is confronted with another crisis, this one crashing down on the man she loves, the man she used to love is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to doggedly pursue the case against her paramour and her employer. Through that court action and the divorce, Phills has brought to light intimate and often embarrassing details about the romance, and Gruenfeld herself. In court filing after court filing, Phills has relentlessly fought for three years worth of electronic communications between his wife and Saloner – but still has not obtained all records from the crucial period in 2012 when the dean was involved in decisions about him while in a relationship with Gruenfeld. 


Phills, so to speak, is playing high (and, Stanford’s lawyers argue repeatedly in court filings, stooping low). Why? Clearly, he is a fighter of sorts. When Phills was a champion wrestler in the unlimited heavyweight class at Harvard College in the early 1980s, he once explained how at 215 pounds he could triumph over much larger and heavier adversaries. He noted that “There’s art in taking a person down,” he told The Harvard Crimson. “Style and skill are the keys to beating the bigger opponents.”

Ostensibly, it was a well-learned lesson by the wrestler-turned-professor. Is it possible that hell has no fury nor gender? A friend claims that Phills is not intent on seeking revenge over losing his wife and his job, nor, for that matter, is he interested in winning for the sake of it. “He is doing this out of principle,” the friend tells Poets&Quants. “He says he does not want his children to live in a world where this behavior is tolerated.”

Whatever the motivation for taking down Saloner and Stanford, the controversy has tossed Gruenfeld into an unwanted spotlight and, no doubt, changed the power dynamics among the faculty at the GSB. Saloner, far from a prolific Twitter user, has in the past six months singled out a handful of professors for praise on the social media platform – all but one tweet is in the usual 16-point type, but the one about New York Times coverage of Gruenfeld’s Acting With Power course is in 26-point. 

Gruenfeld, a woman of power in her own right, hitched herself to an even brighter and more powerful star, top man in the top school in the MBA universe. What will happen in her life, her career, and her relationship now that Saloner has fallen remains to be seen. 


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