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Stanford Drags Apple Into Court Over Lawsuit Against Dean Saloner

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner on campus in August 2015 - Ethan Baron photo

Stanford GSB Dean Garth Saloner on campus in August 2015 – Ethan Baron photo

The ugly court case pitting a former Stanford Graduate School of Business professor against Stanford University and GSB Dean Garth Saloner has ensnared one of the world’s most prominent corporations. Stanford has dragged the mighty Apple – reluctantly – into the lawsuit by former professor Jim Phills, who alleges Saloner railroaded him out of the business school while sleeping with his wife, high-profile organizational behavior professor Deborah Gruenfeld.

The university’s latest hard-ball gambit in its costly battle against a former employee is bound to ignite fires of rage across academia, as the university brazenly and against established academic tradition asserts ownership over course materials that Phills, who now teaches at Apple’s in-house training facility, developed while working at Stanford.

“The claim represents a broad assault on the principle of academic freedom,” Phills claims in a statement to Poets&Quants. “Universities almost universally recognize faculty ownership of the fruits of their academic labors. Stanford’s attempt to appropriate a faculty member’s intellectual property in order to gain leverage in an employment dispute constitutes a profoundly chilling precedent — not only for professors at Stanford, but also for academics everywhere.”


The university is in California Superior Court in San Jose seeking a judge’s order forcing Apple to give Stanford all Phills’ teaching materials from Apple University, the company’s training facility. Stanford does not make clear in its court filings exactly what it is laying claim to. But prominent University of Pennsylvania Wharton School marketing professor Peter Fader says that in general, university ownership of faculty work “only becomes an issue in medicine or engineering when a product is created in a university lab by a faculty member.

“When it’s just ideas, it is a night-and-day difference. A university can’t claim to own your ideas.”

Apple hired Phills in 2012 to teach at Apple University while he was on leave from the GSB, where he taught organizational behavior and had directed the school’s social innovation center. The tech giant has kept him aboard as a highly compensated faculty member, but now has been forced to take on some of his baggage.


Stanford claims it needs the material in part to oppose Phills’ claim that he was harmed financially by his treatment at the GSB, but the demand is clearly aimed at the teaching materials themselves: “Stanford has reason to believe that Phills improperly accessed and saved Stanford property (including course information and documentation owned by Stanford) via its computers and computer network,” according to the Stanford filing. “When Phills failed to return the computers in their entirety at the conclusion of his employment, he may have kept documentation/electronic data which was rightfully Stanford’s property and used it in the creation of his Apple University course materials.”

Apple’s lawyers found Stanford’s demand mind-boggling, says Phills’ lawyer Andrew Pierce of Pierce & Shearer. “In fact, one of the lawyers said he’d never seen anyone do anything like this,” Pierce says. “This is an unusual thing, for (Stanford) to come after Apple for the materials. No one’s ever seen anything like that.”

The development strikes an especially discordant note given the close relationship between Stanford and Apple, he says. Pierce, however, was not surprised by the university’s move. “They’ve been telling me from the beginning three years ago that they’re going to find out whether Jim’s teaching the same courses,” he says. “I really think it’s more to harass him than anything else. They want Apple University to be upset with Jim.”