Reacting to the Stanford GSB Dean Saloner Controversy

It's never easy to wade into troubled waters such as those present at Stanford GSB right now.  

This isn’t just a private matter best left alone.  This isn’t a situation where smoke is being turned into fire.  This is a case where the dean of an institution had an affair with a woman who worked for him and members of the faculty had to circulate a petition to the Provost asking for Saloner’s removal due to hostile work conditions for female staff members.

And truly, we're not here to report any detail on the unfortunate scandal involving the faculty and administration of the world's most selective business school.  If you want the down and dirty on exiting Dean Garth Saloner and professors Deborah Gruenfeld and Jim Phills, be sure to read the initial reporting by Poets and Quants and then the deep dive by David Margolick of Vanity Fair.  Needless to say, it's a sad story that doesn't appear to be getting happier anytime soon.  And it certainly leaves a bad taste in your mouth and invites all sorts of questions about GSB.  But what should you actually worry about here?  That's what we want to tackle.   

Before I go beat by beat, understand that it's pretty understandable to have concerns after reading stuff like this.  

There are some out there who are trying to wave this away and almost shoot the messenger in a sense - as if P&Q and Vanity Fair are somehow at fault for fanning the flames of scandal. I'm sorry, but I don't agree.  This isn't just a private matter best left alone.  This isn't a situation where smoke is being turned into fire.  This is a case where the dean of an institution had an affair with a woman who worked for him and members of the faculty had to circulate a petition to the Provost asking for Saloner's removal due to hostile work conditions for female staff members.  Let's set aside the rest of it - whether Saloner used his power to drive Phills away, whether the Provost's office violated policy, or so forth.  Just the affair and the faculty-led petition alone are enough to give us legitimate pause, given the values this school espouses.  Because remember, Stanford GSB has sold us on how special it is.  According to them this is the land of the highest character and values.  So its a big deal when the leaders of that school fail their charges so miserably.  However, in getting off my soapbox here, acknowledging the gravity of the situation does not mean overreacting to it.  Here are three specific thoughts with that in mind: 

1. Don't change your approach to the "What Matters Most" question.

I start with this one because it's the biggest. I have talked to several people on the phone lately who quite understandably are rolling their eyes at this question (and all the over-the-top messaging that surrounds it).  I've even had a few make jokes that they want to write about immediate gratification mattering most to them (or more colorful versions of that).  And truly, there is now an undercurrent of "this question is a joke" now that we examine in the context of a salacious scandal - to say nothing of the rumors that are spinning off that.  The school that prides itself on the motto of "change lives, change organizations, change the world" and that boasts of incredible growth and interpersonal transformation is looking awfully petty, cynical, and self-absorbed.  HOWEVER.  Please understand this if nothing else: this question was never about Stanford!  Sure, they are were asking it, but the mistake people have always made here is trying to "impress" GSB with their approach to the What Matters Most question.  The reality is that this question is about YOU.  It's about taking the chance to really consider your life.  To really dig deep.  To really find out what matters most.  Not only has that been the most effective approach, but it also has real value in your life.  Don't deprive yourself of this chance now, just because the Stanford side of this has been tainted a bit.  Tackle this question with depth, honesty, and authentic (even earnest) effort.  Don't cheat yourself (pun not intended). 

2. Divorce yourself from The Social Network image you have of this in your head. 

Look, I already acknowledged this is a big deal.  I believe this is institutional arrogance on display, combined with good old fashioned human failings.  However, just because there is turmoil at Stanford among people with giant oak desks does not mean that your individual experience would be impacted.  Issues at the top of a university so rarely touch the actual day-to-day experience, because the people who make the place go are so passionate and self-directed.  It takes years for systemic problems to start to worm into daily events, so unless this is just the final straw in a decade-long string of corruption, I highly doubt GSB students will "feel" this during their time at school.  Indeed, I have spoken to both of our consultants who are GSB students (a first year and a second year) and neither feels that the scandal impacts them ... well, other than the media aspect.  I would also point out that issues can erupt at any time.  A Yale undergrad was not expecting a climate of revolt when they enrolled and yet they are now going to school in the midst of a Freedom of Speech vs. "Safe Space" smackdown.  A student going to Missouri was definitely not expecting to be in the midst of protests, right?  The point is that stuff happens and you can't really predict it anyway.  I personally would not avoid GSB over this, the same way I would not have avoided Wharton a few years ago when their admissions director suddenly left after the Round 1 deadline like a thief in the night.  Do your homework, decide on the nuts and bolts of a school, be clear eyed about the problems that exist, and go from there.  

(Although I guess if you were wanting to go to Stanford so you could impress people at cocktail parties, maybe reconsider as they now may ask you about scandals instead of start-ups.)

3. Consider the disconnect between internal and external messages.  

Despite what I said above (and do believe) that a scandal is unlikely to impact the life of an individual student, it is worth taking a moment to consider whether there is a disconnect between the way GSB presents itself and the way things actually are ... and what that means for you.  My clients applying to Stanford often lean into the ideals and pillars of this school, which include empathy, gender equality, social impact, personal development, and the dynamics between citizens of this world we all share.  But if the reality of the place includes hostile work conditions for female staff members?  If faculty members feel like they are at the mercy of one person's moods?  If the Provost may or may not address problems (versus burying them)?  Well, then we have more systemic issues that you may want to really stop and consider.  Again, not dramatize, but consider.  This is especially true if you are picking GSB for one of those more altruistic reasons.  My personal feeling is that if you enrolled at Stanford GSB next fall with a desire to change the world, you will probably find a place capable of helping you do that.  But my confidence on this point has definitely been shaken ... and yours probably should be a little shaken as well.  

4. Don't write about it or talk about it publicly.  

It's one thing for me to write about this and say how I honestly feel.  I am never going to enroll at GSB.  I could care less what anyone thinks about me.  However, if you are an applicant, try to resist the temptation to weigh in on this.  It's way too easy to share info these days and so a quick tweet or bit of gossip can get around.  Knowing how insular and protective the admissions office is at GSB, it would not surprise me if they have people with Google alerts set, checking Twitter, and so forth - looking to see if anyone is talking smack or relishing in the schadenfreude.  

[Note: This post has been updated from the initial Nov 10 publication to include additional reporting, specifically the petition seeking Saloner's removal from the deanship.]

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