Education

A Yale Law Prof Was Disciplined for Holding Dinner Parties. There’s More to the Story.

The Yale Daily News reported recently that a professor at the university’s law school, Amy Chua, had been disciplined for allegedly inviting students to dinner parties at her house in violation of a 2019 agreement with the dean. Current and former students of Chua’s sent dozens of emails to the administration to protest the decision. Some high-profile supporters condemned her treatment: One deemed it “sinister,” while others suggested it might be racist and sexist. Chua herself called the whole thing “surreal,” denied any wrongdoing, and demanded an investigation.

At first it does seem surreal, if not absurd. How could such a seemingly trivial accusation lead to such public consternation? Was the law school, as some of her allies believed, targeting Chua because of her politics or her persona? Had her personnel file been leaked by the dean in order to discredit her, as Chua seemed to imply? What exactly was going on at the nation’s top-ranked law school?

Chua is probably Yale law’s most famous professor. She’s the author of the 2011 best seller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of her attempt to raise her two daughters in a strict, traditional fashion. In 2018, Chua wrote an op-ed in support of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, praising him as a “mentor for young lawyers, particularly women.” (That op-ed was published before Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when the two were in high school — allegations that he denied.) Stories also emerged about how Chua had supposedly told female students who wanted to clerk for Kavanaugh that they should dress “model-like” in order to win his favor. Chua has called those claims “100% false.”

Chua is also a popular professor. As she will point out, she often receives high marks for her teaching and her classes are regularly oversubscribed. She has a reputation for taking an active interest in the lives and careers of her students, particularly students of color. The nearly 60 pages of emails that were sent to the administration in support of her — and which she posted, minus the names, on her website — are an indication of the loyalty she inspires. “Professor Chua cares more about her students than any other professor I’ve encountered at YLS,” one wrote. Another said Chua had “made me feel confident, comfortable, and supported.” Several declared her the best professor at the law school.

Those emails took issue with Chua’s punishment: Chua was told that she would no longer teach what’s known as a Small Group class next fall. Small Group classes are taken by first-year law students and they are indeed small, usually 15 or 16 students. The classes are intended to provide the kind of camaraderie with classmates and face-time with a professor that might be lacking in a 75-student lecture course. Each Small Group has a $1,400 social budget, according to a recent memo sent to faculty members, that’s meant to support activities like “group dinners and events.”

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So the class Amy Chua had taken away from her for (again, allegedly) holding dinners with students was one in which dinners with students are part of the course description. You could argue — and Chua has — that the law school was, at the very least, sending mixed messages.

But there’s more to it than that. Amy Chua is married to Jed Rubenfeld, who is also a law professor at Yale. Rubenfeld was accused of sexually harassing students and was suspended from teaching for two years. A 23-page report from the group Yale Law Women and the school’s Title IX Working Group spelled out a number of allegations against him, including having sex with students and “forcible kissing and groping.” Rubenfeld told New York Magazine, which broke the news of his suspension last August, that he had said “stupid things” that he regretted, but said that he had never sexually harassed anyone “verbally or otherwise.”

Rubenfeld, who has taught at Yale for three decades, isn’t currently listed among faculty members on the law school’s website. It’s been reported that even after his suspension is over there will be restrictions on his interactions with students. All of that casts a somewhat different light on the story of students coming over to the house Chua shares with Rubenfeld.

There have also been accusations, albeit considerably less serious ones, made against Chua. In a 2019 letter, Heather K. Gerken, the law school’s dean, wrote that Chua had been accused of “drinking heavily with students and making inappropriate remarks about both students and faculty.” That letter went on to say that Chua had “on her own initiative, stopped drinking with her students and socializing with them outside of class and office hours.”

When portions of that letter were reported by the Yale Daily News, Chua complained on Twitter that it was a “gross violation,” and possibly illegal, for the dean to release that information. But the letter was provided to The Chronicle — and very likely the Yale Daily News as well — by a former student, not the administration. It’s not unusual for letters regarding disciplinary actions to be given to the person who made the complaint. Nothing suggests that the law school leaked information about Chua.

The key sentence in the dean’s letter is the one that says Chua will no longer socialize with students outside of the classroom and office hours. Chua has acknowledged, in a letter she posted on Twitter, that an unspecified number of students who were in the midst of “serious crises” came to her house over the course of the semester because it was difficult to meet elsewhere during the pandemic. She says that her husband wasn’t present when they came over, and that what took place was neither a dinner nor a party. Instead, she says, she consoled those students and offered them advice.

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I spoke to three students who went to Chua’s house this semester. None of them describes what they went to as a dinner party. Two said they were, indeed, in the midst of personal crises. One said he went to her house because Chua invited him over for a chat about his future and described it as a “good conversation about entering the legal profession and hearing her war stories.” Each said that they brought one friend and that no one else was present except for Chua and her dogs. They all denied drinking alcohol while at her house. One said, for what it’s worth, that snacks were served.

The Yale Daily News reported the existence of a document from a student “detailing allegations that Chua hosted law students at her household for dinner on multiple occasions this semester.” That same document was provided to The Chronicle as well (though not, it should be noted, by the law school). It contains text messages that indicate students went over to Chua’s house this semester, along with second-hand and unconfirmed accounts of students being invited to dinner parties and getting drunk. But there’s no solid evidence of bacchanalia at the Chua residence.

The students who visited Chua’s house were nervous about having their identities revealed. That may be a testament to the fiercely competitive atmosphere at an elite law school, where students jockey to prove themselves clerkship-worthy and might fear alienating a faculty member who could make or break their legal careers. It may also be because they realize that Chua has become — fairly or not — a polarizing figure at the school and beyond.

In an interview, Chua denied ever drinking to excess with students. What’s more, in the wake of the allegations against Rubenfeld, she says that for a time she didn’t interact with students at all outside of the classroom or office hours. “I lived like a hermit the first year. I was so terrified,” she says. “I might just say that I didn’t see a single student outside my office because there was all this stuff going on with my husband and I was just keeping a very low profile.” Even so, Chua says she didn’t pledge to never again socialize with students. As Chua saw it — and she teaches contract law — whatever deal she made with the dean was both temporary and voluntary.

An excerpt of a letter Chua wrote to the dean in October 2019 appears to back up her claim. In it Chua wrote that “my plan for now is to lie low and generally avoid socializing with students outside of office hours.” Note the words “for now” and “generally.” It appears that the language became more definitive when the dean described the agreement a couple of months later in a letter to those who had complained.

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Chua met with students at her house because, she says, it was too cold to meet outside and it was her understanding that she couldn’t meet inside at the law school because of Covid restrictions. A spokeswoman for the law school, while declining to directly address Chua’s account, said in a statement that “indoor and outdoor meeting spaces have been readily available for faculty and students to reserve” so long as pandemic guidelines are followed. The students who went to Chua’s house said they didn’t wear masks but they did remain socially distanced during their conversations.

When asked specifically whether she drank alcohol during any of the meetings this semester with students, Chua told me the following: “I don’t think so. I mean, I gave one a cheese platter. I don’t think I drank anything because I was very careful about that.” As for whether students drank alcohol at her house, Chua was less certain. “I think it’s possible because, in one case, a student was very, very, very upset about something,” she said. “And so I’m not going to say unequivocally no.”

The law school wouldn’t comment directly on any investigation into Chua’s actions, but a statement from Gerken, the dean, obviously references the situation: “Faculty misconduct has no place at Yale Law School,” the statement reads. “The Law School has a set of clearly articulated norms governing student-faculty interactions and is committed to enforcing them.”

One irony here is that Chua’s punishment for inviting students to her house is that she’s been removed as an instructor for a Small Group class — which she says she didn’t want to teach in the first place. Administrators had “begged and begged” her to take the class on, she says, and she eventually and reluctantly agreed. On Wednesday, Chua sent a letter to her law-school colleagues defending her actions and reiterating that she had held no parties of any kind at her house in the last three years, “much less ‘boozy’ ones.” She concluded by saying that she had been “publicly humiliated” by the law school and the Yale Daily News. “I stand by what I did,” she wrote. “I was mentoring, comforting, and advising — not ‘socializing.’”


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