Vanity Fair digs into 'spiraling sex scandal' at Stanford's business school

Two weeks after his wife died of cancer, Garth Saloner, dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, reached out to Deborah Gruenfeld, another professor at the school.

“It is so wonderful to see you find your thing and blossom,” he wrote. “I hope you are doing OK — I am thinking of you.”

Two months later, they were reportedly in a full-blown romantic relationship, the details of which Vanity Fair revealed in an unflattering portrayal of Saloner and Stanford and what it calls their “spiraling sex scandal.”

The issue at hand: Gruenfeld was still married to but separated from another GSB professor, James Phills, who was later fired from the school.

Since then, Phills has filed a lawsuit claiming Saloner made decisions about the professor’s employment even though he was sleeping with his wife. The ensuing sex scandal at GSB led to the announcement that Saloner will step down at the end of the academic year.

The story was first reported in September by Ethan Baron of Poets and Quants, a news website that covers business schools. Vanity Fair has now dug into the story, interviewing Phills — a 55-year-old ex-Harvard wrestler who made the 1984 Canadian Olympic team. He told the magazine that his estranged wife has reduced him to an “angry black man.”

He told Vanity Fair that his portrayal in court was akin to “O.J.-ification.”

Deborah Gruenfeldscreengrab via YouTubeDeborah Gruenfeld.

His not-yet-former wife, Gruenfeld, is a star at Stanford and beyond. She sold her book, “Acting with Power,” at auction last fall for nearly $US1 million, according to Vanity Fair.

She also sits on the board of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” organisation, and has counseled Sandberg on issues of gender.

Vanity fair doesn’t let that irony — that Gruenfeld became enmeshed in a sex scandal with her boss while providing expertise on gender issues — go unnoticed. From the Vanity Fair article by Joel Simon:

How does it look for someone who built her career analysing the abusiveness of the powerful, and who, until a month before she became romantically entangled with the dean, was the G.S.B.’s sexual-harassment adviser, and who, as co-director of Stanford’s Executive Program for Women Leaders, counsels high-powered women on how to overcome gender stereotypes, to wind up secretly sleeping with her boss?

Phills claims that as his divorce proceedings with Gruenfeld soured, Saloner made it clear that he didn’t want him to return to the school, Bloomberg has previously reported.

Below is an excerpt of a Facebook chat that occurred between Gruenfeld and Saloner that Bloomberg published. The first part of the exchange refers to Phills taking leave from Stanford to work at Apple:

Gruenfeld: Maybe he’s staying at Apple.

Saloner: Let’s hope. We deserve something good tomorrow. We’ve earned it. …

Gruenfeld: Sadly, deserving has not bought me much so far.

Saloner: The universe owes us. Big time.

Gruenfeld: I agree. Maybe we’re turning a corner on that.

For her part, Gruenfeld suggested in a divorce-court filing that Phills had been spying on her, according to Vanity Fair. She said in the filing that he “gave himself access to my devices by owning them, registering them in his name, buying special applications, and using iCloud,” according to the filing quoted by Gruenfeld.

Phills was eventually fired in 2014, and he filed a lawsuit against Saloner and Stanford for wrongful termination and discrimination based on race, gender, and marital status.

Stanford Graduate School of BusinessStanford Graduate School of Business/FacebookGraduates of GSB pose for the camera after their ceremony.

He also claims to want to expose the hypocrisy and cronyism he says takes place a Stanford — an institution that is believed to be a place that imparts ethical leadership on the nation’s brightest minds.

Saloner and GSB refute Phills’ claims in the lawsuit.

“As many of you know, the university and I have been vigorously defending a baseless and protracted lawsuit related to a contentious divorce between a current and former member of our faculty,” Saloner wrote in a press release.

“I have 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.”

For its part, Stanford says it treated Phills “fairly and equitably.” Stanford further said that as soon as the relationship began, Saloner informed Stanford leadership.

“Dr. Phills’ teaching position at Stanford was terminated in 2015 when he failed to return to his university employment after the university had granted him multiple leaves of absence for lucrative opportunities in Silicon Valley, including leaves to work at Apple Inc., beyond what is normally allowed under university policy,” Stanford said.

We have reached out to Saloner, Stanford, and James Phills for comment, and we will update this post if we hear back.

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