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All About Amy (Chua), The Law Professor We Can't Stop Talking About
I read five articles and 20,000 words about the Tiger Mother, so you don't have to.
Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at email@example.com, and you can subscribe by clicking on the button below.
“Eve. Eve, the golden girl. The cover girl. The girl next door, the girl on the moon. Time has been good to Eve. Life goes where she goes. She's been profiled, covered, revealed, reported, what she eats and what she wears and whom she knows and where she was and when and where she's going. Eve. You all know all about Eve.”
— Addison DeWitt, All About Eve (1950)
Over the seven months that I’ve been writing at Original Jurisdiction, I have covered some of the most prominent figures in the legal profession, including leading judges, law firm partners, in-house lawyers, and law professors. Who has been the best for ratings?1
According to the list of my most popular posts, none other than Amy Chua. She’s the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School (YLS), although she’s most famous not as a legal academic but as the author of a controversial, bestselling parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She also happens to be the wife of another longtime YLS faculty member, Jed Rubenfeld (and some refer to them collectively as “Chubenfeld”).
Over the past few weeks, articles about Chua have appeared in multiple major news outlets. Right now, it seems that every journalist in the country is chasing Amy.
Why is this 58-year-old law professor back in the headlines, more than a decade after the viral Wall Street Journal op-ed that propelled Tiger Mother onto the bestseller list? To catch up, check out my earlier story on Chua, or read this CliffsNotes version:
A few years ago, Chua was accused of acting inappropriately around students, getting tipsy and saying indiscreet or even offensive things to them. Her husband Jed Rubenfeld, 62, got in much bigger trouble — suspended from the YLS faculty for two years, after a university investigation into allegations that he sexually harassed multiple female students. That investigation concluded in August 2020, and Rubenfeld is in the middle of serving the suspension. (Rubenfeld denies sexually harassing anyone.)
After the complaints about her, Chua reached a 2019 agreement with the YLS administration in which she expressed “deep regret” for having offended anyone and pledged to stop drinking and socializing with students outside of class. She also agreed not to teach required courses until future notice; stepped down from Yale’s clerkship committee, where she played an important role in helping students land prestigious judicial clerkships, often launching pads for successful legal careers; and paid an undisclosed but “substantial” financial penalty.
Earlier this year, YLS students went to the administration with a “dossier” of evidence supposedly showing that Chua was hosting dinner parties for students at her home — during the pandemic, featuring alcohol, with federal judges in attendance — in violation of the 2019 agreement, as well as Covid-19 protocols.
Chua denied hosting any dinner parties, but admitted that she did have a handful of students over to her home during the pandemic, in order to help these students through personal crises. She said that this was part of her continuing commitment to supporting and mentoring students, especially students from minority or marginalized communities, and they met in socially distanced fashion, sitting far apart and with the windows open. One of the students brought a bottle of wine to one of the get-togethers; she opened it and poured him a glass, but stuck to Frescas herself. She may have served snacks, but not “dinner.” She denies violating the 2019 agreement, arguing that she agreed to refrain from socializing with students “for the foreseeable future” — a period that she submits was over by the time she had students to her home.
In the wake of the allegations about the drunken dinner parties, Chua lost the “small group” class2 she was set to teach this fall (either because it was taken from her or she relinquished it, depending on whom you believe). Tensions are running high between Chua, Rubenfeld, and the YLS administration, led by Dean Heather Gerken.
That’s my attempt to describe, in as objective a fashion as possible, what has happened to date in “Dinner Party-gate” or simply “Dinnergate.”3 This controversy has had Yale Law School — the nation’s number-one law school, alma mater to four out of nine Supreme Court justices, a breeding ground for future leaders — up in arms, for months.
If you don’t like my account of recent events at YLS, well, there’s no shortage of alternatives. In fact, the past six weeks have brought us at least five significant articles about Amy Chua, together totaling almost 20,000 words. I have read all of them, multiple times, and pulled out what’s most interesting or unique from each. For each piece, I’ve provided a “Juiciness Score,” with 1 being the least juicy and 10 being the most juicy; a “Pro-Chua Score,” with 1 being the most anti-Chua and 10 being the most pro-Chua; and my bottom-line assessment.
The goal of this summary is the same as that of Judicial Notice, the weekly legal news roundup that I send out to paid subscribers of Original Jurisdiction each Saturday: I read everything, so you don’t have to. After reading this one post, you’ll be all set for the Fourth of July weekend, ready to walk into any Hamptons cocktail party or Martha's Vineyard clambake and bloviate with the best of them over L’Affaire Chua. You’re welcome!
AN AMY CHUA ARTICLE SCORECARD
Title: Meltdown at Yale Law
Authors: Dahlia Lithwick and Susan Matthews
Date: May 15, 2021
Summary: Lithwick and Matthews acknowledge that, on one level, this drama looks ridiculous: “This latest uproar at Yale is absurd on its face. Did Chua host two students or three? Did they drink a glass of wine or not? Does a cheese plate count as a meal? But the reason it has become such a thing on campus is all about the context.” In describing that context, they emphasize the views of students who “say that Chua is yet again using her mentorship of minority students as cover for what they see as line crossing that never gets meaningfully checked. Basically, it’s a mess.”
Tastiest Tidbits/Highlights: One of the allegations against Chua was that she told law students seeking clerkships with then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh that he favored female clerks who “looked like models.” Chua has denied making this comment, but she admits to Slate that “I did stupidly comment that then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s clerks one year were nice looking — a comment I regret and would never say today.” (Speaking of Justice Kavanaugh, much of the controversy surrounding Chua can be traced back to her high-profile support of his SCOTUS nomination.)4
Juiciness Score: 5/10
Pro-Chua Score: 4/10.
Bottom Line: A gentle warning to minority or first-generation law students who are thinking of becoming Chua mentees (aka “ChuaPets”): proceed with caution, fully aware of “the potential dramas and risks that come with that.”
Title: The Tiger Mom and the Hornet’s Nest
Author: Irin Carmon
Outlet: New York Magazine
Date: June 7, 2021
Summary: Carmon broke the news last year of Jed Rubenfeld’s suspension, and she has many well-placed sources in the YLS community. Her piece contains extensive original reporting, including many salacious new allegations against Rubenfeld, and it focuses more on Rubenfeld than on Chua — all of which puts Chua in a rather negative light. (Chua herself has many defenders; Rubenfeld, not so much.)
Tastiest Tidbits/Highlights: First, there are several deliciously dishy comments from anonymous YLS professors. One defender of Chua chalks up the student complaints against her to resentment: “There are a lot of mediocre students at Yale who were superstars in their little county fairs, and now they’re in the Kentucky Derby and they’re not winning their races and they feel like it’s unfair because other students are doing better.” Another faculty member sniffs that Chua “has no capital at the law school because she’s not an important scholar,” but acknowledges that she “was an excellent party host.”
Second, and quite impressively, Carmon gets some professors to go on the record (a rarity in reporting about Chua). Here’s Doug Kysar, commenting on Jed Rubenfeld’s infamous New York Times op-ed, Mishandling Rape, in which he argued that universities were defining rape too broadly: “The conspiratorial-minded among us see that as strategically defensive.” Here’s Tracy Meares, on Chua’s vaunted mentorship of minority students: “The idea that Amy Chua is the only member of the YLS faculty supporting and mentoring students of color here is insulting to many people who do this work.”
Finally, Carmon elicits interesting comments from Chua herself:
On her history as a party host: “I am done…. some great memories, but this whole thing has been so painful.”
On her relationship with Jed Rubenfeld: “We just live our own lives.”
On whether she and Rubenfeld might leave YLS at some point (a possibility I floated in my prior piece): “Well, I don’t want to be chased out.”
Juiciness Score: 8/10
Pro-Chua Score: 2/10
Bottom Line: An indictment of Chubenfeld (a moniker that Carmon notes is used “semi-derisively” around YLS). But that picture of Amy Chua — standing in front of her New Haven mansion in a red dress, symmetrically framed by her two giant Samoyed dogs — is fierce.
Title: Gripped by ‘Dinner Party-gate,’ Yale Law Confronts a Venomous Divide
Authors: Sarah Lyall and Stephanie Saul
Outlet: New York Times
Date: June 7, 2021
Summary: As you might expect of Times reporters, Lyall and Saul focus on facts and try to get to the bottom of what actually happened at Amy Chua’s house, concluding that no dinner parties took place. The authors also sound sympathetic notes toward Chua and the minority students whom she mentors. (Disclosure: I spoke with Lyall, who contacted me in reporting this piece, but I’m not quoted.)
Tastiest Tidbits/Highlights: Like Irin Carmon’s article, this piece also contains significant original reporting, culminating in this conclusion: “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.”
Lyall and Saul report that the students who went to Chua’s house, whose text messages were used in the dossier as evidence of the “parties,” were never interviewed by the YLS administration over what actually went down at La Casa Chua, even though they were the only eyewitnesses. Regarding the dossier that Chua’s accusers brought to Dean Gerken, the authors quote several unnamed Yale law professors who criticize the document’s reliability and how it was put together. Wonders one, “Where are we — in Moscow in 1953, when children were urged to report on their parents and siblings?”5
Juiciness Score: 6/10
Pro-Chua Score: 7/10
Bottom Line: A straightforward, fact-focused piece that puts Chua in a generally positive light. (See also Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle of Higher Education article from April.)
Title: What Is Going On At Yale Law School?
Author: Lizzie Widdicombe
Outlet: New Yorker
Date: June 28, 2021
Summary: This piece is very “New Yorker” (in a good way), trying to explain why there’s much ado over what seems like nothing. The answer: the controversy “manages to touch on seemingly every single cultural flashpoint of the past few years,” from the #MeToo movement to the Supreme Court to “cancel culture” to anti-Asian bias. (Disclosure: I spoke to Widdicombe, and I’m the “alum from the late nineties” who gives the quote beginning, “New Haven craves a little bit of glamour.”)
Tastiest Tidbits/Highlights: An (unintentionally) amusing quote from a YLS alum about Chua’s mentoring efforts: “[I]t’s not just the gunners. She’s also supposed to be very caring and supportive even with weirdos who can’t get clerkships.” Uh, what about all the weirdos who can get clerkships — i.e., most of Yale Law School?
A nice quip by Chua, on the claim that judges attended drunken dinner parties at her home: “That’s classic Ivy League arrogance, to assume that federal judges, in the middle of Covid, want to fly across the country to be with twenty-two-year-olds.”
Where does the YLS faculty stand? It’s divided. From #TeamAmy: “I think [Dean Heather Gerken] is wrong. She’s gotten her facts wrong, [listening to] clueless students who don’t know what they’re talking about.” From #TeamHeather: “The vast majority of our faculty — except for a handful of my colleagues who are older professors — are fully behind Heather. Amy broke the rules…. It should be over.”
The conclusion of Widdicombe’s piece captures Chua to a T: “The less flattering accounts of Chua’s drinking and gossiping with students reminded me of a very American parenting stereotype: the ‘cool mom,’ as exemplified by Amy Poehler’s character in ‘Mean Girls.’ In that film, the character attempts to ingratiate herself with the friends of her teen-age daughter by crossing boundaries…. It doesn’t end well.”
Chua’s reaction to the “cool mom” comparison: “Maybe you’re on to something. And I know it’s not a positive thing you’re suggesting, but I’m just kind of owning up to it…. I was the nerd with glasses growing up. Completely outsider. I wasn’t bullied, but I was just a studious person, with an accent for most of my childhood. And so, maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s fun to be, like, ‘Wow. The students like me.’”
Juiciness Score: 7/10
Pro-Chua Score: 6/10
Bottom Line: A balanced and thoughtful piece, and something of a Rorschach test — Chua defenders and critics can read it as both pro- or anti-Chua. I score it as slightly pro-Chua, mainly because Widdicombe gives Chua the last word, at which point Chua exhibits some candor and self-awareness.
Title: On Amy Chua, Yale Law and the Cauldron of Nonsense
Author: Vivia Chen
Outlet: Bloomberg Law
Date: June 28, 2021
Summary: Like Chen’s work in general, the column constitutes reported opinion. After interviewing minority students and alumni of YLS, she concludes that “many of Chua’s students are on her side and feel sexism and racism play some part” in her treatment. (Disclosure: As a YLS minority alum myself, I have a good network in these circles, and I helped connect Chen with some sources in response to her request.)
Tastiest Tidbits/Highlights: From some of the Chua defenders that Chen interviewed:
A Black male associate at a top New York-based firm who graduated in 2019: “If a White male professor did what she’s been accused of doing, I can’t imagine he’d be treated the same.”
A recent female graduate: “A lot of White faculty members have gotten away with far worse.”
James Shih, YLS class of 2013, who now heads global projects and legal for SEMCORP Group: “I had no idea what a clerkship or Skadden was. Professor Chua was the only person at YLS who bothered to explain these things to me. I wouldn’t have even applied for a clerkship without her and probably wouldn’t have had the same career as I’ve had so far.”
Juiciness Score: 3/10
Pro-Chua Score: 8/10
Bottom Line: Vivia Chen — like Chua, an Asian-American woman who sometimes gets caught in controversy because of her strong opinions — ultimately comes down on the side of the polarizing professor. Yes, Chen writes, Chua “definitely breaks the stereotype of the demure, quiet Asian. But what’s wrong with that?”
After reading these five deep dives into Amy Chua, Jed Rubenfeld, and Dinner-party gate, what’s my conclusion? Alas, I have more questions than answers.
First, will Chua and Rubenfeld stay together as a couple? I suppose Chua could make her life a lot easier by divorcing Rubenfeld, but I don’t see that happening. They call to mind another famous couple with Yale Law School ties, Bill and Hillary Clinton: their relationship is complicated, maybe even a hot mess, but there’s enough love — or co-dependency — to keep them together.
Second, what will happen to Jed Rubenfeld after his two-year suspension is up? He reminds me of a New York City schoolteacher stuck in a “rubber room”: you can’t put him back in the classroom, but given tenure, you can’t fire him either. The best outcome for all parties might be for Rubenfeld to retire quietly, but given the sinecure value of a YLS professorship, he would surely want some financial incentive to relinquish it. But it’s hard to imagine Yale paying him to go away; the uproar that would ensue would be epic. (You can try to keep such things confidential, but they often somehow come out anyway.)
Third, will Chubenfeld stay at Yale Law School? I previously expressed some doubts, but I now think there’s a good chance they’ll stick around, at least for a while. As Chua told New York Magazine, she doesn’t want to be “chased out,” so she’d leave only if the right opportunity came along, one that would allow her to portray her departure as a victory. But I don’t see that opportunity coming from another law school. YLS’s peer schools are unlikely to be interested — Chua hasn’t focused on legal scholarship lately, while the allegations against Rubenfeld make him radioactive — and non-peer schools wouldn’t hold much appeal for the status-conscious couple.
In this latest controversy, Chua has found some support in anti-”cancel culture” circles, raising the possibility that maybe a conservative think tank or other organization might want to bring her and Rubenfeld aboard in some capacity. Although not conventional conservatives, they’ve written enough politically incorrect things — such as The Triple Package, their 2014 book about why certain cultural groups have gotten ahead in America, and Rubenfeld’s writings on sexual assault — that they could appeal to some right-of-center entity. But I don’t know that Chua would want to leave the academic environment, given how much she enjoys teaching and mentoring law students.
Finally, how does Amy Chua herself feel about all this? As she just told the Daily Mail, this experience has been ”very stressful and difficult for all of us. It's been terrible…. I think everyone is a bit exhausted at being in the centre of another firestorm.”
Unfortunately for Chua, I don’t know that this firestorm is over just yet, or that it won’t be followed by another one. Trouble seems to have a way of finding the Tiger Mother. To paraphrase another line from All About Eve, my favorite film of all-time, “Fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
My most popular story to date has been The Federalist Society And The Capitol Attack: What Is To Be Done? But that post was about an organization, not an individual. So my prior post about Amy Chua, Tiger Mother Amy Chua Roars Back At Yale Law School, has been my most popular story about any individual — more widely read than stories about Justice Stephen Breyer, David Boies, Viet Dinh, Kannon Shanmugam, and the late Judge Robert Katzmann. Eat your hearts out, boys.
A Yale Law School institution, a “small group” is, well, just that — a small group of law students, around 15 to 18 in number, who get to study a required first-year subject with a top YLS professor in a more intimate setting (as opposed to the large lecture classes where first-year law students aka 1Ls typically learn required subjects).
There’s a split of authority on how to refer to this scandal. The New York Times and New Yorker call it “Dinner Party-gate,” while Slate goes with “Dinnergate.”
Justice Kavanaugh later hired Amy Chua’s oldest daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, to clerk for him at the Supreme Court. Some Chua critics viewed this as “payback” to Chua for defending him during his SCOTUS confirmation battle — but I don’t think that’s quite right, as I explained in this Above the Law post.
A very minor comment, but was the Times photo department trying to find the most unflattering picture possible of Dean Heather Gerken? Dean Gerken looks sad, haggard, and about two decades older in this photograph than she does in real life. Official faculty photos tend to make professors look better than they do in real life, but Dean Gerken’s is fairly accurate — and a much better representation than the Times pic.
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