Jurisprudence

Meltdown at Yale Law

How a controversy over Amy Chua hosting students at her house has turned the campus on its head—again.

Photo illustration of Amy Chua with a Yale Law School building in the background.
Yale Law School professor Amy Chua. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Pradipta Mitra/Wikipedia and Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images. 

Over the past several years, Yale Law School has faced a number of controversies involving two of its best-known professors: Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld. The pair are the closest thing Yale Law has to a celebrity power couple, less for their legal and academic achievements than their boundary-pushing bestsellers and op-eds. In 2011, Chua kicked off publicity for her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, with a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” setting off a somewhat predictable firestorm that made her, for a time at least, a household name. In the years since, Chua and Rubenfeld have leaned into their role as provocateurs, and in 2014, they co-authored a new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. This book again received widespread attention and blowback; the New York Times review of the book compared reading it to “being slugged over and over again by a bully wearing kid gloves.”

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More recently, Chua and Rubenfeld found themselves in the spotlight during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Soon after Kavanaugh was nominated, Chua wrote another op-ed for the Wall Street Journal praising him as a “mentor to women.” That piece was published before Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation came out, but despite an uproar on Yale’s campus around those allegations, Chua never withdrew her support for Kavanaugh. And in September of 2018, the Guardian reported that Chua had allegedly told her law students who depended upon her for coveted judicial clerkships that Brett Kavanaugh likes law clerks with “a certain look” that she described as “model-like,” and offered to advise them on achieving it. (Chua denied ever saying such a thing at the time, but in a recent email to Slate, she wrote “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.”) Chua and Rubenfeld’s daughter eventually clerked for Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

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But while the couple has had many moments of public notoriety, nowhere are they more infamous than on Yale’s own campus. In December 2019, following allegations that she made inappropriate remarks about both students and faculty and was drinking heavily with her students (Yale professors are allowed to drink socially with students but, as a recent email from the dean put it, “faculty should never drink excessively or allow students to do so”), Chua came to an agreement with Yale Law: She stopped socializing with her students, agreed not to teach required courses until it had been determined that her behavior had improved, and was removed from Yale’s clerkship committee. (As a member of that committee, she was known for helping minority and first-generation students secure prestigious clerkships that would otherwise most often go to the students of wealthy and connected families.) The investigation that led to that agreement stemmed from a broader investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made by students and alumni against Rubenfeld—allegations we reported on extensively in 2018. That investigation concluded in August of 2020, and Rubenfeld is currently one year into a two-year teaching suspension at Yale Law. (Rubenfeld has always vigorously denied the sexual harassment claims.)

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Now, Chua is at the center of yet another campus meltdown—this time, over allegations that she hosted students for dinners at her home earlier this year.

While seemingly trivial, the allegations, first reported by the Yale Daily News, have caused considerable drama on campus. A document with text messages from students who say they were at Chua’s house has been circulating around the law school, spurring debates over the definition of “dinner.” Chua has sent not one, but two letters to her fellow faculty members loudly denying(ish) the claims, and posted to her personal website 67 pages of letters of support that current and former students had sent to law school administrators in Chua’s defense. Yale Law, while not saying anything definitive on the matter, has removed Chua’s name from a list of professors teaching “small group”—what Yale calls its mandatory small sections for all first year law students—in what is seen by many, including Chua, as a punishment for the alleged dinners. And several students we spoke to (students who did not want to go on the record for fear of crossing a faculty member with considerable clout at Yale Law) 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.

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Here is what we know about the dinner party accusations: In April, the Yale Daily News published a story with several unnamed sources accusing Chua of having students over to her house for dinner. These dinners are alleged to have occurred this past winter, during the height of the pandemic, when Yale had strict policies in place limiting gatherings and requiring mask-wearing for both students and faculty. The main source of evidence for these dinners is a dossier—these are Yale Law students, after all—that includes contemporaneous text messages from students who appear to have been at Chua’s house. (We say “appear to have been” because the texts that are most suggestive of the dinners stem from an inside joke that is also established in materials included in the dossier. Yes, seriously.)  Slate has seen an unredacted copy of the document, which was also shared with administrators. A version of this document has been published in redacted form on Above the Law and is all over campus.

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When Slate reached out to Chua to ask about the dinners, she first referred us to the letter she sent to her colleagues directly after the Daily News story was published. In that letter, Chua denies hosting any dinners, and states that if there were any dinners, there was a simple explanation for them: Anything misconstrued as a dinner was simply an instance of her consoling students in times of acute crisis this past semester after they reached out seeking support. “As many of you know, there were a number of serious crises for our students in the last few months, including a student sending racist and terrifying violent messages to other students (and then disappearing), accusations of racism at the Law Journal, and most recently the outburst of anti-Asian violence that’s been in the news,” she wrote. Chua also noted in the letter that her husband was “not present” (the reported terms of Rubenfeld’s suspension provide that following his two-year suspension, his interactions with students will still be restricted), and that because they could not meet at the law school due to COVID restrictions, there was nowhere else to meet the students but in her home. Yale Law told us buildings had been available for use by professors and students since September 2020.

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When Slate asked Chua if she had any students over to her house the evening of February 19 (one date the dossier suggests a dinner occurred), she wrote, “Yes, I had two students over that evening, from I believe 5:30 to 7.” She again noted that these students had reached out to her in distress, and added: “I didn’t know about the law school ‘Covid-okay-spaces,’ plus they wanted privacy, so they came to my house. They brought a bottle of wine, but I didn’t drink any of it and had two Frescas. No one else was present.”

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While the students mentioned in the dossier declined to speak to Slate, three Yale Law students spoke to Tom Bartlett at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

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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.

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While you would be forgiven for wondering how it can possibly matter if Amy Chua had students over for dinner, the reason this story has taken off has less to do with the dinners—or consolation sessions—and more to do with Chua’s recent history at Yale. When the Daily News reported on the gatherings, it also made public the 2019 agreement between Chua and Yale Law School for the first time. The dinners, in other words, were presented as violations of that agreement—a formerly misbehaving professor misbehaving again. Giving that narrative even more credence, the Daily News further reported that following the dinner party allegations, Chua lost her small group, which she had been set to return to teach for the 2021-22 academic year, the first time since the 2019 agreement.

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When we asked Yale Law why Chua will no longer teach a small group, a spokeswoman told us:

Decisions about who teaches a course are made for many reasons, ranging from a faculty member’s request to teach or not teach a course to the faculty member’s suitabilityDecisions about required first-year small group courses are particularly important because professors in these courses are expected to mentor students academically and to help create an environment in which students can thrive. Since the start of the pandemic, meeting the Law School’s health and safety expectations and exercising sound judgment about such matters may also factor into whether a faculty member is suitable to teach a small group.

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For some students, the Yale Daily News story was the first they had heard about Chua’s past transgressions. Regardless of whether they thought Chua was right or wrong for hosting students at her house, every student we spoke to wanted to know why Yale Law School hadn’t been transparent about Chua’s status as a professor on what was essentially probation. In answer to that question, a spokeswoman for Yale Law School told us, the school is “governed by University procedures, which strictly prevent the Law School from commenting on, or even acknowledging the existence of, faculty disciplinary cases.” A spokeswoman for the University said: “Yale is committed to preserving the confidentiality and integrity of its disciplinary processes. This commitment helps encourage our community members to participate and is consistent with state and federal privacy laws. Accordingly, we do not comment on or even confirm the existence of specific disciplinary cases. Of course, information is shared with participants, and in some circumstances others who have a need to know.”

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This makes sense, legally—personnel matters are often required to remain private. But for the students and several alum we spoke to, this latest, opaque dinner-party-small-group-losing situation is part of a bizarre pattern of punishment and reinstatement for Chua and her husband that has caused them to lose faith in Yale Law’s ability to rein in the high-profile pair.

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The 2019 investigation into Chua’s behavior wrapped up quietly. A few, but not all of the students and alumni who had come forward to allege misbehavior were alerted by Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken’s secretary that they would receive a package by certified mail. That package, sent out in December 2019, included two letters—one from Amy Chua that was characterized in the other letter, from Gerken, as a “statement of regret,” and Gerken’s letter, which outlined the punishment to which Chua had agreed—the agreement that many now believe has been violated:

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Professor Chua will not teach a required course until we are assured that the kind of misconduct alleged will not occur. She voluntarily agreed not to teach Contracts this fall, and she will not teach any required courses next year. Professor Chua has, on her own initiative, stopped drinking with her students and socializing with them outside of class and office hours. She will not serve on the clerkship committee under my deanship. She has also agreed to a substantial financial penalty.

The letter concluded with this paragraph:

I am very grateful to you for bringing this matter to our attention. Professor Chua has voluntarily agreed to all of these conditions. She has mentored a generation of students, especially students of color and first-generation professionals, and I know she wants to resume this important role.

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The Dean’s reference at the end, to Chua’s work supporting minority students, seemed to imply that despite the fact that she had behaved inappropriately, to the point of financial fines, and would be removed from the clerkship committee, her mentorship of minority students would continue in some form. That work is laudable, but as one student put it, Chua “[uses] her mentorship and her connections with the clerkships—and the things she’s willing to do for students of color—to justify her conduct.” In interviews with students and recent alumni, several wondered: If Chua is consistently framing herself as an advocate for these students—and the Law School is endorsing her as such an advocate—but she has also been the subject of discipline for inappropriate interactions with students, isn’t the law school essentially saying that the students who are likely most in need of mentorship are stuck getting it from a professor who, at the very least, struggles to maintain appropriate relationships with students? As one current Yale Law student put it, “it’s pretty nuts to basically say: We have a bunch of faculty who are not willing to mentor students of color or first generation professionals, and then we have a problematic professor who is.”

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Chua has consistently invoked her work mentoring students of color and first-generation students when she is accused of any wrongdoing, including in her response to Dinnergate. And there are certainly many Yale Law School students and alumni who feel they have benefited from their relationship with her. But at the same time Chua posted that 67-page bundle of supportive letters to her website, a recent alum sent a very different letter to Chua, cc-ing Gerken, another dean, and two faculty members. (A lightly redacted version of this letter was also shared with “the Wall,” a list serve that all students and faculty at the law school can access, on May 3, and was later shared on Twitter.)

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In that letter, the alum described having a close relationship with Chua as a first year student at Yale Law, and then explained how that relationship soured as, over the course of their time at Yale, the alum witnessed Chua allegedly belittling current and former students, speculating on students’ sexuality, regularly commenting on students’ appearances, and playing favorites among students. One of the last straws for this alum, according to the letter, was knowing that Chua had said the things several news outlets reported her saying about then-Judge Kavanaugh liking female clerks to dress a certain way, and watching her deny it again and again. “I have had dozens of close male and female faculty mentors, none of whom ever once blurred the line, or made me feel small, or made me question my sanity and decency like you did,” the alum writes. The letter writer notes that all of this disillusioned them to the point that they decided not to apply for a clerkship at all.

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Chua denied many of the specific allegations in the letter (“my memory of every single event mentioned in [the] letter is categorically different from what is described,” she wrote to us in an email). Chua told us that “this student’s words are among the most painful I’ve ever read. I feel terrible sorrow for [their] experience at the Law School.” She added that these complaints were fully reviewed by Yale in 2019, are part of what led to the 2019 agreement, and that, as part of that agreement, Chua had issued an apology letter. She says that in her apology, she wrote that she “acknowledged ‘that I can be unguarded or unfiltered at times,’ and I apologized for ‘anything that might have been hurtful to students even if that was the farthest thing from my intention.’” But the alum who wrote the letter says they never received a copy of the 2019 agreement, or Chua’s statement of regret.

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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: Yale has removed Chua and Rubenfeld from teaching mandatory courses, then permitted it, then removed them again, all with zero transparency. Even before the 2018 investigation, Rubenfeld had lost permission to teach a small group for one year, following previous accusations of harassment. After the school concluded its 2020 investigation into Rubenfeld’s misbehavior, it only told members of the faculty, not students, that Rubenfeld would be suspended from teaching all of his classes for two years. After this two-year suspension, Rubenfeld will be allowed to teach at Yale Law again, although he will still be barred from teaching small groups or any other required classes. In other words, whatever Yale did find, it was sufficiently alarming that the school determined Rubenfeld could no longer be trusted to teach a required class, even post-suspension, but also that after some interregnum, he could still teach some students, so long as they chose to take his classes. If this dance actually achieves anything at all, it is to create a rotation that assures that every few years, a fresh crop of first-year law students will have to navigate relationships with these same two professors who could make or break their legal careers, without any sense of the potential dramas and risks that come with that.

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An extensive report prepared last year by Yale Law Women, a student organization, made this point about Rubenfeld to Yale President Peter Salovey. “There is no reason to believe there will be any change in his behavior—the only change will be that all the students who are aware of his transgressions will have graduated, thereby impairing institutional memory,” the report states. “We do not want Jed Rubenfeld to prey on a new generation of students.” As one recent alum told us, “I’ve been in touch with so many YLW leaders on this—that just shows how many different years’ worth of students have had to devote time to this.”

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As for Chua, while that 2019 agreement removed her from the clerkship committee, she has continued to play a role in clerkship placements. Regardless of who is on the official committee, clerkships are handled by whichever professors are most willing to invest their time and energy into leveraging personal relationships with judges to place their students. And while multiple people told us that other members of the Yale Law School faculty certainly mentor minority and first generation students, it does seem that no one is as committed to doing this—or as outspoken about doing this—as Amy Chua. (When we asked Chua about continuing her clerkship work, she said, “yes, of course, when students in my classes ask me for a clerkship recommendation, I provide it.”)

When we reported on the Yale investigation into Jed Rubenfeld’s behavior toward his students in 2018, multiple students told us they once heard Chua threaten to “call every justice on the Supreme Court” to limit the options of a student who had helped organize a response against an op-ed Rubenfeld had written for the New York Times. (The op-ed criticized universities’ attempts to adjudicate rape, and claimed the label was being applied too broadly.) Whether Chua—who denied all of these claims—would actually go to such vindictive lengths is unclear, but the fear students expressed about crossing her reflects the lopsided power dynamics that exist between high-profile professors with long-standing connections to federal judges, and the students who must rely on those professors to help them get ahead, particularly the students who have no other connections.

This dynamic might explain why even the smallest allegation about Chua causes such a ruckus at Yale Law. As one student put it, that Chua is perceived to maintain so much influence over the Yale clerkship pipeline and yet keeps crossing lines “really forces minority students to choose between complicity and career advancement.” That is, if they even know about the allegations against her in the first place.

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