Lest this sound like hyperbole, on Tuesday not one but two mainstream media outlets published stories about the controversies swirling around Amy Chua, the John M. Duff Jr. professor of law at Yale Law. Readers familiar with the world of academia know Chua as a professor who writes a lot about world politics and, curiously, little about the law; readers who have a richer interior emotional life will instead be aware of Chua from her “Tiger Mom” memoir. [Full disclosure: I interviewed Chua and her father for Foreign Policy a decade ago at the peak of Tiger Mom-mania.]
Chua stands accused of … well, it’s still not entirely clear after reading Irin Carmon’s New York story and Sarah Lyall and Stephanie Saul’s New York Times story, and catching up on Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle of Higher Education story from April. I think, at its root, this is a story about three things: Chua’s questionable judgment, Yale Law School students’ questionable judgment and Yale Law School administration’s questionable judgment.
Let’s start with Chua’s judgment. How do I know it’s questionable? Because she agreed to pose for this cover photo for Carmon’s story:
Pro tip: If you have been accused of behaving badly in academia, do not agree to pose for a photo staged to make you look like a Bond villain.
Beyond that public relations miscue, what did Chua do wrong? Carmon’s story is the most critical of the lot, and it does reveal some sketchy behavior. She told her dean that she would not host students at her house and then, much later, had some students come to her house during the pandemic for mentoring. Before that, she denied saying things to students that it turned out she said. She blurred the boundaries between professor and student. According to one student email, “Chua… would speculate about her students’ sexualities, sometimes disclosed private details of professors’ lives, and mimicked a student with a disability in class one day.” Chua denies these accusations.
None of this is great, but none of it seems to merit coverage in the New York Times either. Part of the problem is that Chua is linked to more serious controversies. She is married to fellow Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld, and Carmon’s story details Rubenfeld’s bad behavior toward female law students at excruciating length (YLS has suspended Rubenfeld from teaching for two years without pay). She defended YLS alum Brett M. Kavanaugh as a good mentor for women in the Wall Street Journal before Christine Blasey Ford came forward (and, full disclosure, I have heard similar positive things about Kavanaugh’s mentoring of women from people who despise his politics). After Kavanaugh was confirmed, Chua’s oldest daughter was hired to clerk for him.
There is one bigger thing that Chua stands accused of -- but it is less about her and more about the social order of Yale Law School. Chua shepherded her small group of students to prestigious clerkships with judges, and that appears to have annoyed other students. The faculty response is telling, and not in a good way:
Faculty members I spoke to have mixed feelings about it all. “There’s a weird schism among the students where they want the place to be utterly transparent and utterly equitable,” mused one who is sympathetic to that critique, “but they also want to keep the prestige and privilege that the place affords.” Three other professors told me that Chua is the victim of overzealous zoomers who have confused the natural hierarchy of achievement — and Chua’s right to favor whomever she wants — with a social-justice outrage. “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,” says one faculty member who thinks the dean, Heather Gerken, was too deferential to students in how she handled the small-group affair.
As a Jew, I get itchy whenever I see the phrase “natural hierarchy” used in a sentence. So I don’t entirely blame Yale Law School students for having a sense of grievance about the rules of the game.
I do blame them, however, for trying to coerce fellow students and the Yale administration to run Chua out of town on what appears to be a non-scandal. According to the Chronicle story, this spring a YLS student assembled a dossier that “contains text messages that indicate students went over to Chua’s house this semester, along with secondhand and unconfirmed accounts of students being invited to dinner parties and getting drunk.”
The problem is that the document does not substantiate those claims. Indeed, the New York Times story is quite damning on this point:
Ms. 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 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.
The Times story further notes that the student who created the dossier also outed the students who visited Chua’s house. This “caused them to be attacked by classmates as somehow being both complicit in, and victims of, Ms. Chua’s perceived misconduct.” One of the students subsequently withdrew his application for a prestigious teaching-assistant job with another professor because of concerns, the student explained, "that I obtained the position through some sort of pernicious arrangement with Professor Chua.”
Lurking in the background behind all of this is YLS Dean Heather K. Gerken. In her statement to the Chronicle, she said, “Faculty misconduct has no place at Yale Law School. The Law School has a set of clearly articulated norms governing student-faculty interactions and is committed to enforcing them.” The Times story notes, “Ms. Gerken referred to the dossier at an April 21 faculty meeting as evidence of Ms. Chua’s misconduct. Several professors who saw the material said in interviews that they were shocked at how unpersuasive it was.”
Being a dean is a difficult task during normal times. They need to raise money, they need to hear everyone complain to them, and they have to oversee academics and dear God we are a smug, cantankerous lot. Doing all of this during a pandemic must have been that much harder. Still, Gerken’s actions during this episode have the whiff of someone who wanted to make something go away without assessing whether the something was true or not.
In the end, this story seems to be a synecdoche of larger shifts in elite schools that are trying to cater to student demands and a professoriate adjusting to new norms. There were fewer rules governing student-faculty interactions back in the day. There were more opportunities for building stronger mentoring relationships; there were also more opportunities for the abuse of power.
Chua at least acknowledges that her behavior needs to change. She told the Times reporters, “I’ve been unfiltered and over the top.” She told Irin Carmon:
Many of the things that I was encouraged to do and I was complimented for 20 years ago, like making the house intimate for small groups of people who felt they had nowhere else to turn, turned into something that — and I take responsibility for this — I didn’t really understand that, Oh my gosh, some people don’t feel comfortable in this space, or there’s more competition than you realized for these spots. I didn’t think of it that way.
After reading all of these stories, I am not convinced that Chua did anything untoward in 2021. I definitely think less of the judgment of everyone involved.