Stanford: What’s All The Fuss About?

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner announced he is stepping down at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner announced he is stepping down at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year

“Love Triangle Brings Down Stanford Business School Dean,” screamed The Daily Beast. “Stanford Business School Dean Resigns Amid Affair Scandal,” blasts The Daily Mail. “Stanford Business School’s Dean Announces Resignation After Being Accused Of Sleeping With A Fired Professor’s Wife,” was how Business Insider put it.

As shocking as the headlines are, however, they capture only one part of the unfolding scandal at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. A week after Dean Garth Saloner announced that he would step down from his job little more than a year into his second five-year term, most of the media coverage has focused on the more salacious details.

It’s not hard to see why. It’s not an every day occurrence when the dean at one of the world’s most prestigious universities enters into an affair with a faculty member who happens to be married to another professor who has since been fired from the school. But there’s much more to this story than an affair between a dean and a professor.

We’ve assembled an FAQ to guide readers through the main points of the controversy.

What’s all the fuss about? After all, people fall in and out of love with each other all the time?

Dean Garth Saloner showed poor judgment in having an affair with a faculty member who is a subordinate and, even worse, is married to another faculty member at the school. But let’s put that aside for the moment. The dean then failed to recuse himself from personnel decisions that directly impacted his lover’s husband, Jim Phills, who has been on the GSB faculty for nearly 14 years. Worse, Facebook messages between the dean and his lover, Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, suggest that his intent was to harass and humiliate the husband.

To what extent did the university leadership look the other way?

That’s hard to tell but the evidence introduced in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit brought by the husband, James Phills, raises serious questions about Provost John Etchemeny’s failure to exercise strong leadership. On October 31, 2012, Saloner sent an email to the provost letting him know about his growing relationship with Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, the wife of another faculty member.

“I have seen Deb a few times socially,” Saloner writes. “I am not sure where the line is for reporting such matters and suspect I am pretty far from it . . . (Phills) has been on partial leave . . . and we had set this quarter as the time to figure out our relationship going forward . . . The negotiations over this will be handled by my SADs (senior associate deans) as they usually are. It is possible that I will be asked to weigh in at some point, and at a minimum will certainly be asked to ratify their recommendations. With apologies for burdening you with this I propose to ask you to approve our thinking on whatever we decide (and perhaps to weigh in more substantively, depending on what we recommend).”

Etchemendy’s emailed response to Saloner appears to grant the dean authority to make decisions about Phills. “I am absolutely supportive of anything you decide wrt Jim,” Etchemendy writes.

In a Facebook chat with Gruenfeld shortly after Saloner’s correspondence with Etchemendy, Saloner reports on his disclosure to the provost.“He basically ignored what I said about the two of us and, not in these words, that he trusts me to make any decisions regarding Jim . . . I think it is his way of saying ‘you have done what the policy says you have to do, I appreciate it, but the policy wasn’t written with you/this in mind and so I’m respecting your privacy and ignoring it.’”

So all we’re talking about here is a love triangle?

Not at all. The story is about the abuse of power: The dean’s decision not to recuse himself from matters in which he obviously had a conflict of interest, the provost’s decision not to require recusal and to reappoint the dean after receiving a letter signed by 46 GSB staffers and faculty urging that Saloner not be reappointed to a second five-year term, and the behavior of the dean that caused a large number of people in a small community to sign a document that charges the dean with creating “a hostile environment…ruled by personal agendas, favoritism, and fear.”

What exactly did the current and former staffers of the GSB say about the dean?

The “Group of 46,” as they are more commonly known on campus, claimed they had “observed an increasingly disturbing pattern of inequitable treatment in the form of reprimands, censures, curtailing of responsibilities, demotions, retribution for expressing concerns or raising issues, offensive behavior and decisions that have led directly to tangible employment actions such as dismissals, undesirable reassignments, forced resignations, and inequitable access to promotion opportunities. There have been numerous violations of the University’s Code of Conduct as well as its HR policies. The numbers alone paint a striking picture (see attached) [Note: the attachment was not filed in court with the copy of this letter]. Of the 40 senior staff members who left the GSB since 2010, the vast majority are women and over 40 (the remainder are almost all men over 40). Yet the Executive Dean’s Management Group – the School’s primary governing body – has become almost entirely male: seven men and one woman.”

Under Saloner’s leadership, the school has lost several outstanding women, including four formerly high-ranking officers. Sharon Hoffman, MBA program director and associate dean for almost 11 years after nine years as senior associate director of MBA admissions, departed in June 2012. Blair Shane started as chief marketing officer and associate dean in 2011 and was gone within three years. Kriss Deiglmeier, executive director of the GSB Center for Social Innovation for a decade, left in February last year. Beth Benjamin, director of strategic initiatives and development for two years and previously the founding executive director for five years at the GSB Center for Leadership Development and Research, left in 2010.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.