Amy Chua Controversy Exposes Divisions at Yale Law
A dispute centering on the celebrity professor Amy Chua exposes a culture pitting student against student, professor against professor.,
Yale Law School in downtown New Haven, Conn.Credit…Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — On March 26, a group of students at Yale Law School approached the dean’s office with an unusual accusation: Amy Chua, one of the school’s most popular but polarizing professors, had been hosting drunken dinner parties with students, and possibly federal judges, during the pandemic.
Ms. Chua, who rose to fame when she wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” is known for mentoring students from marginalized communities and helping would-be lawyers get coveted judicial clerkships. But she also has a reputation for unfiltered, boundary-pushing behavior, and in 2019 agreed not to drink or socialize with students outside of class. Her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, also a law professor, is virtually persona non grata on campus, having been suspended from teaching for two years after an investigation into accusations that he had committed sexual misconduct.
The dinner parties, the students said, appeared to violate Ms. Chua’s no-socializing agreement, and were evidence that she was unfit to teach a “small group” — a class of 15 or so first-year students that is a hallmark of the Yale legal education, and to which she had recently been assigned — in the fall. “We believe that it is unsafe to give Professor Chua (and her husband) such access to and control over first-year students,” an officer of Yale Law Women, a student group, wrote to the dean, Heather K. Gerken.
The students provided what they said was proof of the dinners, in the form of a dossier featuring secretly screen-shotted text messages between a second-year student and two friends who had attended. That touched off a cascading series of events leading to Ms. Chua’s removal from the small-group roster.
Ms. Chua says she did nothing wrong, and it is unclear exactly what rule she actually broke. But after more than two dozen interviews with students, professors and administrators — including three students who say they went to her house to seek advice during a punishing semester — possibly the only sure thing in the murky saga is this: There is no hard proof that Ms. Chua is guilty of what she was originally accused of doing. According to three students involved, there were no dinner parties and no judges; instead, she had students over on a handful of afternoons, in groups of two or three, mostly so they could seek her advice.
“I met with Professor Chua to discuss a deeply distressing experience I had, an experience that hinged on my race and identity,” said one of the students, who is Asian.
It may appear to be a simple matter, one professor losing one course, but nothing is simple when it comes to Ms. Chua, who seems perpetually swathed in a cloud of controversy and confusion. “Dinner party-gate,” as Ms. Chua wryly calls it, has turned into a major headache for the school.
The story has been adjudicated all over social media and picked up in outlets ranging from The Chronicle of Higher Education to Fox News. Ms. Chua’s retweet of a tart Megyn Kelly comment (“Tell the damn whiners to sit down,” Ms. Kelly tweeted), raised suggestions that Ms. Chua was positioning herself as a victim of “cancel culture.”
At the law school, the episode has exposed bitter divisions in a top-ranked institution struggling to adapt at a moment of roiling social change. Students regularly attack their professors, and one another, for their scholarship, professional choices and perceived political views. In a place awash in rumor and anonymous accusations, almost no one would speak on the record.
A feature of this difficult year has been increased demands from student groups. Against this backdrop, Dean Gerken’s critics in the faculty worry that she acted too hastily in the Chua matter, prioritizing students’ concerns over a professor’s rights.
Particularly problematic, several professors said in interviews, was her reliance on the text-message dossier, prepared by a student who learned that two of his friends had gone to Ms. Chua’s house — and believed the visits made them complicit in her, and Mr. Rubenfeld’s, behavior.
It is a curious document. Among other things, the aggrieved student’s text messages show him repeatedly asking one of the friends to admit to meeting judges there, and the friend repeatedly denying it. (“if you promise to keep it between us, i’ll tell you — it was Chief Justice John Marshall,” the friend finally texts, in an exasperated reference to the long-deceased jurist.)
Ms. Gerken referred to the dossier at an April 21 faculty meeting as evidence of Ms. Chua’s misconduct. Several professors who saw the material said in interviews that they were shocked at how unpersuasive it was.
“Evidence of what?” one asked. Another called it “tattletale espionage.”
“Where are we — in Moscow in 1953, when children were urged to report on their parents and siblings?” the professor said.
Ms. Chua acknowledges warning the students to keep quiet about the get-togethers (“I did tell them all, ‘Don’t mention this,’ because everything I do, I get in trouble for,” she said), but maintains that she violated no rules.
“There are many things in the past that I can say, ‘Oh, I probably spoke too recklessly,’ or, ‘Maybe it was interpreted this way,'” she said in a recent interview. “This most recent thing — there is zero truth to it.”
Ms. Gerken declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement that professors’ Covid-related behavior was relevant in determining their fitness to teach a small group.
“Health and safety expectations and exercising sound judgment about such matters should figure into whether a faculty member is suitable to teach a class, particularly a small-group course,” she said. “Professor Chua has publicly acknowledged that she served food and drink inside her home during the early weeks of the spring semester, when Covid was spiking and the university was repeatedly asking our community to avoid maskless indoor gatherings.”
A couple beset by controversy
Provocative and gregarious, Ms. Chua and her husband have long attracted attention at Yale Law School.
But the two are divisive figures, and not just because of “Tiger Mother,” Ms. Chua’s tough-love parenting memoir, or the rumors dating back years of Mr. Rubenfeld’s inappropriate behavior toward female students. At a time of left-leaning orthodoxy, Mr. Rubenfeld seems intent on pushing the envelope. After he wrote a New York Times opinion essay in 2014 questioning the fairness of campus sexual-assault findings, dozens of students signed a letter of protest.
For Ms. Chua, similar trouble arrived in 2018, when Brett M. Kavanaugh, a Yale Law graduate, was nominated for the Supreme Court and she praised him as a fine mentor of women. (Her older daughter had been hired to clerk for him, and took the job after his elevation.) On a campus wracked by bitter anti-Kavanaugh protests, her views were regarded as a betrayal, especially when it emerged that she was said to have told students that Judge Kavanaugh’s female clerks “looked like models.” Suddenly, her reputation as someone who could help students get judicial clerkships was regarded as a negative.
With the #metoo movement gathering force, years of rumors coalesced into official inquiries. Yale opened a Title IX investigation into allegations that Mr. Rubenfeld had made inappropriate sexual comments and attempted to touch and kiss female students. The details are secret, but in August, some of the claims were upheld, and he was suspended. (He denies sexually harassing students.)
As for Ms. Chua, her critics paint her as quick to play favorites, quick to improperly draw students into her confidence, and complicit in her husband’s behavior. After her 2019 agreement not to drink or socialize with students, she apologized to students she might have offended.
“I’ve been unfiltered and over the top,” she said. “I’ve tried to seriously change.”
‘The matter is closed’
Promises of change did little to allay the concerns of the students who, in March, saw Ms. Chua’s name on the small-group list and told the dean they had proof that Ms. Chua had broken her agreement.
The mention of evidence seemed to energize the administration. “Dean Gerken is taking this news VERY seriously and wants to move forward asap,” Ellen Cosgrove, the dean of students, wrote on March 26 to the students. “Would you be able to share the texts with me?” She asked them to keep her request private.
Two days later, Ms. Chua got an email from the The Yale Daily News, the student newspaper, which said it had heard that she was about to be stripped of her small group.
That was news to Ms. Chua. Later that day, she met over Zoom with Ms. Gerken. It was not a pleasant meeting. The dean mentioned alcohol and judges, Ms. Chua said, before announcing that she had decided on a “different lineup for small group professors.”
Ms. Chua stepped down rather than be pushed, she said.
The dean’s office responded that Ms. Chua had ample opportunity to defend herself.
“Throughout my deanship, I have made no decision about disciplinary action involving a faculty member until the person accused of misconduct receives notice of the allegations and has an opportunity to respond. Period,” Ms. Gerken said in her statement.
She added: “If a faculty member offers to withdraw from a course and I accept that offer, the matter is closed.”
Students and faculty split
The matter might indeed have been closed if The Yale Daily News had not published its article the following week, referring to “documented allegations” that Ms. Chua had hosted “private dinner parties with current Law School students and prominent members of the legal community.”
Ms. Chua fired off her angry letter to her colleagues and posted it on Twitter. “As the only Asian-American woman on the academic faculty, I can’t imagine any other faculty member would be treated with this kind of disrespect,” she wrote.
Then all hell broke loose.
In the anti-Chua camp, one alumna released an anguished five-page letter describing how her adoration of Ms. Chua had soured in 2018, when Ms. Chua decided to “throw students under the bus” by denying their claims that she had made the comments about Judge Kavanaugh’s law clerks.
“From the bottom of my heart, Amy, you gutted me,” the alumna wrote.
While the author was close to Ms. Chua, most of the law students criticizing her said they had never met her — and had been warned not to.
“We are scared that Chua is continuing to put students in harm’s way,” a student wrote to the dean.
Equally impassioned were dozens of letters supporting Ms. Chua, who posted them on her personal website. The letters spoke of her highly personal support for students of color, for first-generation professionals, for students from state colleges, for foreign students.
To suggest that she had harmed students by inviting them to her home, a pro-Chua student said, “is ludicrous in the first place, even if they were actual children. But these are adults.”
Lost in the cacophony were the fates of the two students whose text messages featured in the dossier, and who said the episode has left them unable to trust their own classmates. Their identities were revealed when the dossier’s creator prepared a supplementary “timeline,” including their names, and gave it to other students; soon it was all over school.
The release of the timeline, the students said, caused them to be attacked by classmates as somehow being both complicit in, and victims of, Ms. Chua’s perceived misconduct.
The ensuing furor led the Asian student to withdraw his application for a prestigious teaching-assistant job with another professor, he explained, because he feared people would say “that I obtained the position through some sort of pernicious arrangement with Professor Chua.“
The students said the dean’s office had never asked them what actually happened at Ms. Chua’s. They said, too, that the administration seemed much more worried that they might have been harmed by Ms. Chua than by the friend who secretly recorded their conversations.
When she raised the issue, one student said, “I was repeatedly told that the students were acting on my behalf and out of concern for me.”
As the spring semester wound down, the whisper network was in full force. Some professors were weary of Ms. Chua’s continuing dramas; others had lost faith in Ms. Gerken; others were calling for more transparency in faculty disciplinary matters.
“This is my fourth firestorm,” Ms. Chua said, “and I just kind of want to survive and write my books.”
At the April 21 faculty meeting over Zoom, Ms. Gerken related her version of events: Ms. Chua’s infractions, the contemporaneous student evidence. The presentation struck some professors as decidedly odd, and at least one secretly recorded the meeting.
At the meeting, Bruce Ackerman, a Sterling professor of law and political science, outlined the problem, or at least one of them: “Two of our most prominent professors, one of whom is the dean, seem to be saying diametrically opposite things.”