Gripped by 'dinner party-gate', Yale Law confronts a venomous divide

Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, on May 26, 2021.
Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, on May 26, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW HAVEN (NYTIMES) - On March 26 this year, a group of students at Yale Law School approached the dean's office with an unusual accusation: Professor Amy Chua, one of the school's most popular but polarising professors, had been hosting drunken dinner parties with students, and possibly federal judges, during the pandemic.

Prof Chua, who rose to fame when she wrote the novel Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, is known for mentoring students from marginalised communities and helping would-be lawyers get coveted judicial clerkships.

But she also has a reputation for unfiltered, boundary-pushing behaviour, and in 2019 agreed not to drink or socialise 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 Prof Chua's no-socialising 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.

"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, Professor Heather Gerken.

The students provided what they said was proof of the dinners, in the form of a dossier featuring secretly screenshot text messages between a second-year student and two friends who had attended. That touched off a cascading series of events leading to Prof Chua's removal from the small-group roster.

Prof 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 Prof 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.

It may appear to be a simple matter, one professor losing one course, but nothing is simple when it comes to Prof Chua, who seems perpetually swathed in a cloud of controversy and confusion. "Dinner party-gate", as Prof Chua wryly calls it, has turned into a major headache for the school.

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 rumour 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, Prof Gerken's critics in the faculty worry that she acted too hastily in the Chua matter, prioritising 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 learnt that two of his friends had gone to Prof Chua's house - and believed the visits made them complicit in her, and her husband, Prof Rubenfeld's, behaviour.

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.

Provocative and gregarious, Prof 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, Prof Chua's tough-love parenting memoir, or the rumours dating back years of Prof Rubenfeld's inappropriate behaviour towards female students.

At a time of left-leaning orthodoxy, Prof 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 Prof Chua, similar trouble arrived in 2018, when Mr Brett Kavanaugh, a Yale Law graduate, was nominated for the Supreme Court and she praised him as a fine mentor of women. (Her oldest 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.

After The Yale Daily News, the student newspaper, informed Prof Chua it had heard that she was about to be stripped of her small group, she met over Zoom with the dean. Prof Gerken mentioned alcohol and judges, Prof Chua said, before announcing that she had decided on a "different line-up for small group professors". Prof Chua stepped down rather than be pushed, she said.


Amy Chua, one of Yale Law School's most popular but polarising professors, at her home in New Haven on May 24, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The dean's office responded that Prof 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," Prof Gerken said. "If a faculty member offers to withdraw from a course and I accept that offer, the matter is closed."

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 Prof Chua had hosted "private dinner parties with current law school students and prominent members of the legal community".

Prof 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 Prof Chua had soured in 2018, when she decided to "throw students under the bus" by denying their claims that she had made the comments about Mr Kavanaugh's law clerks.

Equally impassioned were dozens of letters supporting Prof Chua, who posted them on her personal website. The letters spoke of her highly personal support for students of colour, for first-generation professionals, for students from state colleges, for foreign students.

As the spring semester wound down, the whisper network was in full force. Some professors were weary of Prof Chua's continuing dramas; others had lost faith in the dean; others were calling for more transparency in faculty disciplinary matters.

"I just kind of want to survive and write my books," Prof Chua said.