“There’s an art to taking a person down.”
Those pivotal words came from a 23-year-old, three-time Ivy League MVP wrestler in a 1983 profile in The Harvard Crimson on pinning opponents. And they couldn’t be more apropos now.
That’s because the very same wrestler—Jim Phills, now 55—is in a legal bout against his former employer, Stanford University, and has accused the dean of its prestigious business school of seducing his professor-wife.
If this dustup had happened in Anywhere, USA, the contentious divorce between Phills and his “academic rockstar” ex could very well amount to a backpage blotter item. Instead, the stage is the gilded grounds of Palo Alto, California, where—just beyond the private golf course—lies Stanford University in all of its country-club splendor.
At the Graduate School of Business (GSB), ranked No. 1 in the world, the future masters of the universe are armed with off-the-charts IQs and pan for riches with their iPads. Lately, they’ve been poaching the best and brightest to become Cardinals, as the institution has become the darling of Nobel laureate economists.
And so it came as a shock to many in this golden land when Dean Garth Saloner decided to fall on his sword this past Monday, relinquish his prestigious title, and announce his decision to go back to teaching and research.
His reasons were cryptic. “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,” he wrote in a statement released by the school.
The dean said his little legal mess has snowballed. “I have become increasingly concerned that the ongoing litigation and growing media interest will distract you from the important work that you are doing and unfairly impact this stellar school’s deserved reputation.”
The same dean was less formal when he allegedly sent Phill’s then-wife, Deborah Gruenfeld, suggestive missives over Facebook and email, as replayed in epic fashion by the business school website, Poets and Quants.
In one, Saloner seems to urge discretion. “Can’t risk letting your kids walk in on us,” he wrote. “I could meet you on your street for one late night hug, but I know better than to think we could limit ourselves.”
In the messages published by Poets and Quants, Saloner indicates that he thought he had the green light to go after Gruenfeld’s heart—and says he received his blessing from none other than Stanford’s own Provost, John Etchemendy. “He basically ignored what I said about the two of us… that he trusts me to make any decisions regarding Jim [Phill]… 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.’”
According to Poets and Quants, Gruenfeld responded: “Love that. So discreet and respectful.”
The back-and-forth goes on before the dean emails, “I want to hold you.” Gruenfeld replies, “I want you to hold me.”
Gruenfeld did not respond to requests for comment. Attempts to reach Gruenfeld’s lawyer and Saloner for comment were unsuccessful. (A woman identifying herself as Dean Saloner’s relative told The Daily Beast, “I don’t think he will talk to you.”) The Stanford Business School directed reporters to their previous response to the dean’s resignation.
Puppy-love missives between two of the most accomplished academics on Earth may seem sedate. But court papers acquired by The Daily Beast reveal that Gruenfeld played a pivotal role at GSB beyond being one of the most decorated and widely published professors at the school.
From 2010 through September 2012, Gruenfeld was the “University-designated faculty member who served as the Sexual Harassment Advisor for the GSB.”
Dean Saloner stood in a position of authority over both Gruenfeld and her ex-husband, Jim Phills, before and during their divorce proceedings. And yet, according to the the school’s own “Administrative Guide,” “relationships between employees in which one has direct or indirect authority over the other are always potentially problematic. This includes not only relationships between supervisors and their staff, but also between senior faculty and junior faculty, faculty and both academic and non-academic staff, and so forth.”
The “person of greater authority or power” is expected to get a recusal “to ensure that he/she does not exercise any supervisory or evaluative function over the person in the relationship.”
And that is exactly where Dean Saloner crossed the line, according to the civil complaint filed by Phills.
“Dean Saloner participated in the decision to deny Professor Phills continuation of the existing GSB loans that were already in place” for the couple’s $2 million on-campus home “… [and] expressed animus toward Phills as well as jealousy, both related to his marriage to Professor Gruenfeld. He also expressed a desire for Phills to leave his position at Stanford,” the lawsuit claims.
According to the lawsuit, there appeared to be a concerted effort to squeeze Phills out of the school by reneging on the terms of GSB’s loan to the newly-single dad—an effort allegedly empowered by Provost Etchemendy, who “tacitly or explicitly sanctioned Saloner’s ongoing relationship with his subordinate and the wife of Professor Phills.”
At one point, on March 3, 2013, the lawsuit says, Deborah Gruenfeld avoided calling campus police about a “physical altercation” that allegedly occurred between her and Phills. Instead, according to the civil complaint, Gruenfeld ran over to Saloner’s home on campus and together they went to file a report with campus police.
According to the civil complaint, Phills’s attorneys suggest the claims of violence were bogus.
The tangled nature of the apparent love triangle might be all the more surprising considering the luminary personalities involved. According to one mutual friend of the couple, Gruenfeld is a first-rate professor. “She’s hands down the most talented person I’ve seen in executive education,” the friend, a fellow academic, confirmed. “She was talking about network theory, strategic networking developments, well before Facebook existed.”
Perhaps part of her genius lies in her ability to put herself out there.
In one talk, she started by showing a scribbled self-portrait. She remarked, “The person has too many eyes, not real arms or hands. It’s a person who sees everything and feels powerless to do anything about it.”
That drawing was done by a 3-year-old Gruenfeld.
She went on to say she remains still very vulnerable. “A lot has changed with me since I drew this but this littler person is still with me.”
Indeed, Gruenfeld is one of the top business professors in the country and also a board member of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization. In her bio, the accomplished Ph.D., who was recruited by Stanford and earned tenure there, writes she’s practicing what she preaches. “To state the obvious, perhaps, I am leaning in at work,” she writes.
The professor goes on to talk about how she has been in a dismal low point when, in 2005, she learned “my second child was diagnosed with cancer.” The child managed to make a full recovery. But she also writes that she is currently “weathering a painful divorce.”
There were many days, she says, when she would “just close the door and cry”—and yet, she notes, “I thank the universe every day for my job, and for my family, and for the fact that I am lucky enough to have figured out how I am supposed to be living my life.”
Her ex-husband, Phills, was entreated to Stanford in 2003 as an assistant professor and four years later he made full professor. He would go on to co-found the school’s award-winning Stanford Social Innovation Review.
According to the civil complaint, the “clandestine romantic and sexual relationship” between Gruenfeld and Dean Saloner starting getting hot and heavy once she separated from Phills around June 2012.
But, according to the complaint—which was filed on April 2, 2014—Saloner had allegedly been foxing around Gruenfeld “back to 2008 or 2009.”
As far back as 2011, Dean Saloner was tweeting about Gruenfeld’s essay exposing bad behavior among some executives.
The complaint says that Dean Saloner used his knowledge of Phills’s intimate and financial situation to force him out of his faculty position and to put pressure on him regarding his home, where Phills lived with his two children and his elderly mother. In one note from Dean Saloner’s office, Phills says he was told, “It would be cleanest if you jointly sold the house.”
The civil complaint suggests that Dean Saloner tapped his top clearance at Stanford to access Phills’s “confidential employment records and the outcomes of decisions” and shared them with Gruenfeld to “advance her interests in the divorce and custody dispute.”
Phills had already gone on leave and was teaching at Apple University when Stanford’s administration essentially told him he had to choose between Silicon Valley or academia, the complaint says.
Phills’s departure was academia’s loss, says one friend. “Jim Phills is one of the most talented professors in the classroom that I’ve ever seen,” a friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity said.
The friend noted that Phills has a way of bringing his supreme hockey and wrestling skills into the classroom. “He creates an energy where competition is part of the environment he’s created… He will challenge people and challenge sloppy thinking.”
Back at Harvard, a young Phills admitted that winning is addicting. “When you triumph, you get a feeling of personal satisfaction.” It remains to be seen whether his lawsuit will prevail and provide the same satisfaction.