What Is Going On at Yale Law School?

A decade ago, back when we talked about things besides new coronavirus strains and vaccination rates, there was a weeks-long media frenzy over a parenting memoir called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” In that book, Amy Chua, an American daughter of Chinese immigrants, described her efforts to raise her children the “Chinese” way. For her, that meant dispensing with squishy Western conventions like “child-led learning” and participation trophies, and ruthlessly driving her two young daughters to master their classical instruments and maintain perfect grades. The book provoked a fierce backlash, much of which centered on Chua’s tactics, which ranged from threatening to burn her older daughter’s stuffed animals to rejecting a hand-scrawled birthday card that demonstrated insufficient effort. Chua’s younger daughter “rebelled” at the age of thirteen, choosing competitive tennis over concert-level violin, but, for the most part, Chua’s system worked. Her daughters became musical prodigies and successful athletes, who attended Harvard and Yale. The phrase “tiger mom” entered the cultural lexicon and spawned a Singaporean TV show, “Tiger Mum,” and a show in Hong Kong, “Tiger Mom Blues.”

That was the last time many of us heard about Amy Chua—unless you’ve been following the news out of Yale Law School, where Chua is a professor. If so, you know that the discussion kept going. Over the past few months, Chua has been at the center of a campus-wide fracas that, nominally, concerns the question of whether she hosted drunken dinner parties at her home this past winter. The controversy began in April, when the Yale Daily News reported that the law-school administration was punishing Chua for the alleged offense by removing her from the list of professors leading a special first-year law class called a “small group.”

Normally, drinking with students wouldn’t be out of bounds. Yale Law is known for being a cozy place, as far as law schools go, and students are typically in their mid-twenties—well past the legal drinking age. But, last winter, when Chua’s parties supposedly took place, there was a pandemic going on. And Chua’s husband, her fellow Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld, was serving a two-year suspension from the faculty for sexual harassment. And, as the Yale Daily News article revealed, Chua technically wasn’t supposed to be having students over to her home or serving them alcohol. Three years ago, when the law school investigated Rubenfeld for harassment, the investigator also looked into allegations that Chua had engaged in “excessive drinking” with students and had said offensive things to them. Chua denies that this is exactly what happened. But, at any rate, in 2019, she was issued a financial penalty, and she wrote a letter to the law school’s administration agreeing “not to invite students to my home or out to drinks for the foreseeable future.”

Everyone on campus knew about Rubenfeld’s situation, but Chua’s had not been made public—only the dean’s office and the student complainants knew about it. Chua was outraged that the student newspaper had divulged a private disciplinary matter. She told me that her Gen Z daughter Lulu, the former violin prodigy, encouraged her to come out swinging. “She’s, like, ‘You have to fight the narrative,’ so I just did something shocking,” Chua said. She wrote an open letter saying that she’d been falsely accused and described a Zoom call with the Yale Law dean in which she’d been treated “degradingly, like a criminal.” She also claimed that she had been barred from teaching a small-group class without receiving an explanation from the dean’s office. “I sent it to my entire faculty, and I tweeted it,” Chua said. “Ever since then, it’s been kind of an escalating nightmare.” Slate, Fox News, and the Post picked up the story. Earlier this month, the Times published an investigation into what has become known as “Dinner Party-gate.”

The question has arisen, in online comments sections and on Twitter, why anyone is even talking about Amy Chua. Who cares about a parenting memoirist’s removal from a law-school teaching roster? The answer is, in part, because this story manages to touch on seemingly every single cultural flashpoint of the past few years. Chua’s critics see a story about #MeToo—because of her husband, but also because Chua supported the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, even after he was accused of sexual assault. Meanwhile, Chua’s defenders see a morality tale about liberal cancel culture. “What they’ve done to you is SOP”—standard operating procedure—“for conservative allies but chills me to the bone nonetheless,” a supporter tweeted at her, earlier this month. Megyn Kelly weighed in, tweeting, “Make no mistake: this is retribution for her support of Brett Kavanaugh, & it is disgusting.” Chua’s allies have also suggested that anti-Asian bias is involved. “The woke academy reserves a special vitriol for minority faculty who don’t toe the line politically,” Niall Ferguson, a historian, tweeted.

Chua and her husband aren’t politically conservative—she says that Rubenfeld has historically been “very left-leaning,” whereas she is a “solid independent”—but they are provocateurs. Both husband and wife have a knack for finding subjects that get people talking, or, rather, screaming at one another around the dinner table. In a 2013 legal article, Rubenfeld pontificated on how we define rape. (See: “The Riddle of Rape-by-Deception and the Myth of Sexual Autonomy,” Part V, Section 3: “No Means No – but It May Not Mean Rape.”) Chua often writes about ethnicity. In 2014, the couple co-wrote a book, called “The Triple Package,” about why some cultural groups are more successful in America than others, inspired by the authors’ own Chinese and Jewish heritage. In a New York Times review of Chua’s latest book, “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations,” published in 2018, David Frum described the professor as “an uncomfortable presence in American intellectual life.” He went on, “Chua approaches the no-go areas around which others usually tiptoe. The warning alarms burst into ‘WAH-OH, WAH-OH’—and Chua greets the custodians with a mild, ’Oh sorry, was that a taboo?’ ”

On the Yale Law campus, in New Haven, the Chua-Rubenfelds are local celebrities. Until recently, their home was something of a salon: a place where you could meet a federal judge, a published author, or a television producer. “New Haven craves a little bit of glamour,” an alum from the late nineties told me. “Amy was friends with Wendi Murdoch. She’d go to Davos. They have a super-nice apartment in New York, and they’d throw parties there.” Once Chua became known as the Tiger Mom, she even began dressing accordingly. A current Yale Law student told me that, this past semester, the professor wore a tiger-print mask in every class.

One must understand the social dynamics at Yale Law to truly grasp the significance of Dinner Party-gate. The top-ranked law school in the country, Yale is known for being the spot where Bill and Hillary Clinton met, as well as the alma mater of four current Supreme Court Justices. It’s supposed to be more philosophical and progressive than its counterpart at Harvard, which has more than twice as many students, many of whom tend to go on to more boring, lucrative careers in corporate law. This makes for an intense social environment at Yale. “The law school is quite small, but it’s quite riven,” a woman who graduated earlier this year told me. “There’s a very vocal minority of social-justice-oriented students,” who are there to pursue their passions for criminal-justice reform or women’s rights. There are also plenty of hyper-diligent strivers, sometimes referred to as “gunners.” Frequently, these groups overlap.

Every gunner shares the same dream: to kick off their careers with a clerkship for a big-name judge—ideally one of the “feeder judges” (usually those serving on the Court of Appeals), whose clerks often end up clerking on the Supreme Court. A Supreme Court clerkship is the ultimate gold star. “If you get that, it’s like the key that unlocks all the other doors in the legal profession,” a Yale Law graduate from 2019 told me. “If you want to be in the Solicitor General’s office, a Supreme Court clerkship will open that door. Same goes for a top law firm with a huge signing bonus.” (According to lore, the Supreme Court-clerk sweetener clocks in at four hundred thousand dollars.)

The best clerkships go to the very best law students. But the first semester at Yale is pass-fail—after that, the marks range from “honors” to “failure”—so it can be hard to distinguish one brilliant applicant from the next. In this context, a professor’s recommendation counts for a lot. A recommendation from Amy Chua, even more so. “She’s kind of seen as a golden ticket to clerkships,” the woman who graduated earlier this year told me. She explained that when she began the process of applying for clerkships, she reached out to other students for advice. “Every person I called to ask ‘How did you get this job?’ told me, ‘Amy Chua made a phone call.’ ”

Chua’s path to becoming a kingmaker has been unorthodox. Rubenfeld, a constitutional-law expert, was hired by Yale in 1990. According to Chua, she bungled her initial interview, instead landing at Duke’s law school, and didn’t join her husband until the spring of 2001, when Yale brought her on as a visiting professor. Later that semester, she was offered a tenured position. “My perception when I came to Yale Law School was that my husband was a superstar, and all these people were so articulate, and I was the only Asian-American woman on the academic faculty,” Chua recalled. “I could barely speak at faculty meetings, and I was always so on the outs—just a kind of marginal figure.” It took a few years for the tide to shift. By the early twenty-tens, though, “Amy was the most popular teacher at the school, with the possible exception of Heather Gerken,” a professor told me.

At Yale, Gerken and Chua represent two different kinds of figures. Gerken is one of the nation’s leading specialists in election law and constitutional law, and served as a senior adviser to Barack Obama during both of his Presidential campaigns. (In 2017, she was named the dean of Yale Law, becoming the first woman ever to hold that position.) Chua, on the other hand, doesn’t have much standing as a legal scholar. While many of her colleagues—Rubenfeld included—built up their résumés with law-review articles, Chua threw herself into teaching and mentorship with the same vigor that she once applied to parenting.

As a mentor, Chua is known to have a type: immigrants or students of color, usually those who have come from impoverished backgrounds. But she also takes an interest in conservative students—an arguably marginalized group at Yale—and those pursuing nontraditional careers, like business or journalism. (One of her most notable mentees was J. D. Vance, the author of the 2016 best-seller “Hillbilly Elegy,” who ticked several of those boxes.) “I think she likes people who are a little bit of an outsider or underdog for whatever reason,” the 2019 graduate told me. One group of mentees even began calling themselves “ChuaPets.” “A lot of people adore Amy Chua,” the woman who graduated earlier this year said. “They take a class with her, and she takes a shine to them, and then their lives get better. And it’s not just the gunners. She’s also supposed to be very caring and supportive even with weirdos who can’t get clerkships.”

In the wake of Dinner Party-gate, Chua posted sixty-seven pages of e-mails, from student mentees past and present, on her personal Web site. The stories have a similar arc. The mentees describe their backgrounds: one came from a tiny fishing village in China that did not have indoor plumbing; another writes, “I grew up a poor Black bastard raised by a single-mother of two.” I spoke to one of the letter writers, a recent graduate, who is also a first-generation immigrant. The graduate had found many faculty mentors, but those relationships were “more or less purely academic,” she said. Chua was different. “She was interested in knowing who I am, where I came from, about my family back home.” Chua gave her detailed feedback on her papers and insidery advice on how to apply for clerkships. For example, she advised the student to keep quiet about her passion for international law, warning that it might make her a less attractive candidate. “No other professor had told me that,” the graduate said. “It was something I wouldn’t have known unless I had a dad or a mom who was a lawyer in this country.” On graduation day, she recalled, “I was reflecting on what I would have done differently if I had another chance at the law school. Basically, I wish I’d gotten to know Professor Chua earlier. That’s my biggest regret.”

In 2017, the legal world, like everyone else, started to feel the effects of the #MeToo movement. The first domino to fall was Alex Kozinski, a prominent conservative judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who, in late 2017, resigned after multiple women, including clerks, accused him of sexual misconduct. Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, was probably one of the most influential judges in America, apart from the nine Supreme Court Justices.

In 2018, Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a former Kozinski clerk, to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh had attended Yale Law and was known for hiring clerks from the school. Chua, whose oldest daughter, Sophia—also a Yale Law alum—had been chosen to clerk for Kavanaugh, endorsed him in an op-ed titled “Kavanaugh Is a Mentor to Women.” Later that month, Christine Blasey Ford accused the nominee of sexual assault. Chua didn’t withdraw her endorsement. Then, days before Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, the Guardian reported that Chua had made suggestive comments to students in her small-group class about Kavanaugh’s preferences regarding the appearance of his female law clerks.

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