Anatomy Of A Rebellion: Inside The Revolt Against Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner

Stanford Graduate School of Business Dean Garth Saloner on campus

Stanford Graduate School of Business Dean Garth Saloner on campus

Hoffman traces her ouster back to a speech Saloner gave to incoming first-year students during orientation in 2009, in his first year as dean. Saloner had been upset with the school’s party culture, Hoffman says. He had come to her saying he wanted to “double down on academics,” she says, but she warned him that he and the administration would take heat from students, so he would have to forge ahead on changing the student culture past the two years of MBA-program collective memory. “He said, ‘I got it, I got it. I will support you,’” Hoffman says.

When Saloner stood up to lay down the law to the incoming students, he was nervous, Hoffman recalls. “He really in a very ham-fisted way hammered on academics. The students went absolutely batshit. They accused him of trying to destroy the culture.”

As the year went on, the dean removed her from his senior leadership group, instructing her to report to her boss, the MBA faculty director, who would report to him. She met regularly with students, who were telling her they remained angry with Saloner. She gave reports to her boss, who eventually told her he hadn’t been passing along her observations to the dean. “He said, ‘Garth doesn’t respond well to feedback. If I give him this feedback I will lose my influence with him,’” she says.

STUDENTS SNUB THEIR DEAN

So when Saloner attended the annual GSB gathering for returning second-year students in 2010 – the ones he’d angered a year earlier at orientation – he may have expected the typical showing of about two-thirds of the candidates, roughly 250 or so students out of the 400-plus in the class. Hoffman says she’d warned Saloner to expect a hostile audience. And it was. It was also very, very small. Fewer than two dozen students showed up.

“It was such a slap in the face. He was livid. The 12 to 20 people who showed up were loaded for bear,” Hoffman says. Students demanded, ‘Why are you trying to ruin our culture?’ she recalls.

Later that day, Saloner summoned her into his office. “He starts yelling at me, full voice, yelling at me: ‘Why didn’t you warn me? How could this have possibly happened? How could you be so incompetent at your job that you didn’t know this would happen? Why the hell didn’t you tell me?’

Hoffman was dumbfounded. “No one has ever yelled at me,” she says. “I just don’t run in circles where people do that.”

The next morning, Saloner apologized, Hoffman adds. “He said, ‘I have a hard time, Sharon, accepting feedback, especially from you.’  I said, ‘What is it, my tone, my style?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, it’s just who you are.’ Which I think other women heard as well.”

CAVING IN UNDER STUDENT PRESSURE

Soon after, Saloner called Hoffman in, and noted to her that her MBA program team had been highly bureaucratic, followed rules meticulously, and made no exceptions to the rules, and she responded that he had instructed her to operate that way, she says. Saloner then said, “From now on, we say ‘yes’ to students. When students ask for something when it is in your power to make it happen, you should make it happen.” Hoffman suggested he was only in the beginning of the second year of trying to change the student culture, and should take the pressure till the changes could take hold. “He said, ‘Sharon, you seem resistant.’” She agreed to the new protocol, but told Saloner “the faculty are going to get angry and it’s not going to help the student culture.” A faculty member confirms that Saloner caved to student demands.

Students began taking advantage, particularly by dropping high-demand courses far past the deadline, which aggravated professors and robbed opportunities from other students who wanted to take the classes, Hoffman says. Then Saloner sent her a “blisteringly negative” email, criticizing her leadership, her innovation skills, her telecommuting, her failure to attend every student event, including on weekends, and her lack of “alignment” with the dean’s office. “That was like the death knell, because if you’re not aligned with him that’s the end of the world,” Hoffman says.

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