Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

NY Times: Gripped By ‘Dinner Party-gate,’ Yale Law School Confronts A Venomous Divide

New York Times, Gripped by ‘Dinner Party-gate,’ Yale Law Confronts a Venomous Divide:

Yale University LogoA dispute centering on the celebrity professor Amy Chua exposes a culture pitting student against student, professor against professor.

On March 26, a group of students at Yale Law School approached the dean’s office with an unusual accusation: Amy Chua, one of the school’s most popular but polarizing professors, had been hosting drunken dinner parties with students, and possibly federal judges, during the pandemic.

Ms. Chua, who rose to fame when she wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” is known for mentoring students from marginalized communities and helping would-be lawyers get coveted judicial clerkships. But she also has a reputation for unfiltered, boundary-pushing behavior, and in 2019 agreed not to drink or socialize 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 Ms. Chua’s no-socializing 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 — in the fall. “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, Heather K. Gerken.

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

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. ...

It may appear to be a simple matter, one professor losing one course, but nothing is simple when it comes to Ms. Chua, who seems perpetually swathed in a cloud of controversy and confusion. “Dinner party-gate,” as Ms. 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 rumor 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, Ms. Gerken’s critics in the faculty worry that she acted too hastily in the Chua matter, prioritizing students’ concerns over a professor’s rights.

New York Magazine, The Tiger Mom and the Hornet’s Nest:

For two decades, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld were Yale Law power brokers. A new generation wants to see them exiled.

It’s supposedly haunted,” Amy Chua says brightly as she ushers me into the cavernous antechamber of the New Haven home she shares with fellow Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld. Chua helped me find the sprawling Tudor-Gothic stone edifice by noting its “weird chimneys and griffins.” This is the house from which Chua and Rubenfeld — Chubenfeld, as they’re semi-derisively known on campus — once held court. Yale Law, the top ranked in the country, is both intellectual hothouse and finishing school for the American elite, and for the past two decades, the couple was “the self-appointed social center of the entire institution,” as one former friend on the faculty puts it. “They had the ability to create spectacle, to make themselves the center of a conversation.” Yale Law is not only the place where Bill and Hillary Clinton met and that has graduated four sitting Supreme Court justices. It promises intimacy, and is half-jokingly referred to as Montessori law school. Only 200 students enroll each year, less than half of Harvard’s 1L class. In turn, these students are set afloat on even smaller boats of 16 to 18 students — the “small group” — captained by a single faculty member who introduces them to the world of the law and of Yale Law School.

There, Rubenfeld was, his wife tells it, “the big constitutional-law golden-boy star,” and she was the live wire, the embodiment of her 2011 best seller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: willing to outrage but also to make herself the butt of the joke. In a place where everyone was brilliantly credentialed and yearned for a way to set themselves apart, students believed Chubenfeld’s favor, especially Chua’s, could grease their path to the top, or at least to the clerkships that obsess the legal upper crust. Both students and faculty flocked here, for dinners and their big annual Harvard-Yale party, and sometimes for more glamorous gatherings like one she threw for Wendi Murdoch, who befriended her after The Wall Street Journal excerpted Tiger Mother. (“She was raising two daughters,” says Chua, “and always wanted advice.” Murdoch was later photographed in New York with a dashing Yale Law student on her arm.)

“I am done,” Chua says. “I mean, those are some great memories, but this whole thing has been so painful.” Now this house is the locus of so much of what has lately made Chua, 58, and Rubenfeld, 62, into pariahs. Rubenfeld is halfway through a two-year suspension without pay after a university committee found he sexually harassed at least three former students. The complainants I spoke to believe there are at least seven of them who went through the process. Rubenfeld has been barred from contact with students during that time and blocked from teaching a required course. ... (One of the students who lodged a complaint calls Rubenfeld “the Louis C. K. of legal academia.”) ...

Yet lately, Chua is the one on the public defensive. turns out Chua, too, was investigated by a fact finder, hired by the law school, who looked into claims that she had abused her power over the clerkship process, made inappropriate comments, and engaged in “excessive drinking” with students. In 2019, Chua incurred a “substantial financial penalty,” according to a letter complainants received; accepted limits on socializing with students; and apologized to complainants for “remarks I made in jest or frustration that were capable of being misinterpreted in a way that made them seem hurtful or intimidating.”

This was all secret until this April, when the Yale Daily News reported that Chua would no longer be teaching a small group. Students had gone to the administration with, among other items, screen-grabbed text messages between students with secondhand accounts of socializing at Chua’s house, which were then circulated over email and subsequently republished on the Above the Law blog. Such gatherings also violated COVID-19 safety protocols. ...

Chua’s insecurity about her place at the law school has not been unfounded, though many of her colleagues seem awed by her public profile. “Jed is very much a figure in the intellectual life of the school,” says a male professor. “Amy, not at all. Has there ever been a more famous Yale Law professor than Amy Chua? No. On the other hand, she has no capital at the law school because she’s not an important scholar.” (She was an excellent party host, he conceded.)

Rubenfeld embraced the role of boy genius turned provocateur. In class, he liked prolonged eye contact, Socratic cold calls, and edgy hypotheticals. He’d studied at Juilliard and would often dramatically exit the room at the end of a lecture. Says a colleague, “He thrives on the understanding of the classroom as an eroticized place, where there’s this kind of thrill of engaging in risky exploration about ideas that’s continuous with risky exploration of all kinds of boundary transgressions.”  ...

Some of Chua’s allies once saw her as another victim of Rubenfeld, but the couple’s mutual exile from Yale’s good graces might have brought them closer together. Chua says Yale Law has never felt like home, but she doesn’t say she’ll leave, either. “Well, I don’t want to be chased out,” she says. Her first semester back after the Kavanaugh blowup, she says, her classes were oversubscribed. Still, it won’t ever be the same. “Given all the baggage around me now, I think that it’s going to be my own policy never to have any parties here,” Chua says. After a pause, she adds, “I’ll see. I mean, maybe. I would love to be able to get past this.” And maybe she will. In the fall, a new crop of students arrives.

Chronicle of Higher Education, A Yale Law Prof Was Disciplined for Holding Dinner Parties. There’s More to the Story.

Washington Post, Anatomy of an Elite Law School Quasi-scandal

Brian Leiter (Chicago), The Yale Law School Spectacle Continues

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