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Stanford Faculty Predict Dean Saloner Will Be Gone Before Long

Stanford Provost John Etchemendy - Stanford photo by Linda A. Cicero

Stanford Provost John Etchemendy – Stanford photo by Linda A. Cicero

Little more than a year into his second term as dean, Saloner announced on Sept. 14 that he would step down from his position at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year. Only five days earlier, Saloner had declined a request for an interview from Poets&Quants about the litigation, his decision not to recuse himself from personnel decisions involving Phills, and a rebellion by 46 current and former staffers against the dean’s reappointment. A day later—four days before Saloner made his announcement—Poets&Quants had submitted a highly detailed list of questions to the university, outlining embarrassing details of the dean’s relationship with his subordinate, and his actions regarding his lover’s husband.

In his only public statement, Saloner said he had become increasingly concerned that “the ongoing litigation and growing media interest will distract all of you from the important work that you are doing and unfairly impact this stellar school’s deserved reputation.”

With Saloner still in the job, however, his announcement has done little to quell the controversy. Coverage of the story has exploded all over the world from The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek to the Daily Mail and The Daily Beast. The New York Times is said to be preparing a long-form article on the dispute. If anything, Saloner’s decision to hang onto his job until June of 2016 and the university’s support of that decision has only served to fuel unrelenting media attention.


Vanity Fair, in fact, suggests that Etchemendy may ultimately force Saloner to leave before the academic year ends and name an interim dean before a search for a successor can be conducted. “With the heat from the case now likely to shift to Etchemendy, the question is whether the provost, too, might turn on Saloner,” writes Margolick. “Some of the dean’s colleagues believe his insistence on staying at the school, and Stanford’s willingness to let him, is but the latest in a long list of maladroit moves and miscalculations.”

Etchemendy himself certainly made one maladroit move, after Saloner informed him about the affair with Gruenfeld, and suggested he as dean would retain a role in decision-making about Phills; Etchemendy responded that he was “absolutely supportive” of anything Saloner and his team decided about Phills. To be sure, Saloner had downplayed his relationship with Gruenfeld, informing Etchemendy that he had “seen Deb a few times socially.” 

In the Vanity Fair article, Margolick relates the discovery by Phills on his wife’s cell phone of a 17-page chat between Saloner and Gruenfeld that reportedly referred to intimate events between the two that occurred three days after Saloner’s notice to Etchemendy. The chat included discussion of birth control, and was so “graphic and salacious that before producing it in court Phills’s own lawyers redacted it,” the Vanity Fair article says. The letter included Saloner’s reflection on an evening he and Gruenfeld spent together. “What an amazing night. What an incredible gift,” Saloner wrote to Gruenfeld.


In the magazine article, Etchemendy complains, “It would have been better had Garth let me know that the relationship had progressed to the next stage when it did.”

Margolick unearthed court records that appear to support Phills’ contention that the dean was hostile toward him and had pushed Gruenfeld to act more aggressively toward her husband, telling her to “poke a stick at him every day,” describing the black ex-professor as a “tarantula” and an “elephant seal,” referring to him as an “asshole,” a “sociopath,” and a “dick,” as well as visualizing him in an orange prison jumpsuit.

Phills told Margolick that Gruenfeld set out to punish him and get custody of their two children, and reduced him to the “quintessential ‘angry black man.’” Phills called the process his “O.J.-ification.”