Paul L. Caron

Monday, June 21, 2021

The New Yorker: What Is Going On At Yale Law School?

Following up on my previous posts:

The New Yorker, What Is Going On at Yale Law School?:

New Yorker (2014)The prestigious institution has tied itself in knots over a dispute involving one of its most popular—and controversial—professors, Amy Chua.

A decade ago, back when we talked about things besides new coronavirus strains and vaccination rates, there was a weeks-long media frenzy over a parenting memoir called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In that book, Amy Chua, an American daughter of Chinese immigrants, described her efforts to raise her children the “Chinese” way. For her, that meant dispensing with squishy Western conventions like “child-led learning” and participation trophies, and ruthlessly driving her two young daughters to master their classical instruments and maintain perfect grades. The book provoked a fierce backlash, much of which centered on Chua’s tactics, which ranged from threatening to burn her older daughter’s stuffed animals to rejecting a hand-scrawled birthday card that demonstrated insufficient effort. Chua’s younger daughter “rebelled” at the age of thirteen, choosing competitive tennis over concert-level violin, but, for the most part, Chua’s system worked. Her daughters became musical prodigies and successful athletes, who attended Harvard and Yale. The phrase “tiger mom” entered the cultural lexicon and spawned a Singaporean TV show, “Tiger Mum,” and a show in Hong Kong, “Tiger Mom Blues.”

That was the last time many of us heard about Amy Chua—unless you’ve been following the news out of Yale Law School, where Chua is a professor. If so, you know that the discussion kept going. Over the past few months, Chua has been at the center of a campus-wide fracas that, nominally, concerns the question of whether she hosted drunken dinner parties at her home this past winter. The controversy began in April, when the Yale Daily News reported that the law-school administration was punishing Chua for the alleged offense by removing her from the list of professors leading a special first-year law class called a “small group.”

Normally, drinking with students wouldn’t be out of bounds. Yale Law is known for being a cozy place, as far as law schools go, and students are typically in their mid-twenties—well past the legal drinking age. But, last winter, when Chua’s parties supposedly took place, there was a pandemic going on. And Chua’s husband, her fellow Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld, was serving a two-year suspension from the faculty for sexual harassment. And, as the Yale Daily News article revealed, Chua technically wasn’t supposed to be having students over to her home or serving them alcohol. Three years ago, when the law school investigated Rubenfeld for harassment, the investigator also looked into allegations that Chua had engaged in “excessive drinking” with students and had said offensive things to them. Chua denies that this is exactly what happened. But, at any rate, in 2019, she was issued a financial penalty, and she wrote a letter to the law school’s administration agreeing “not to invite students to my home or out to drinks for the foreseeable future.”

Everyone on campus knew about Rubenfeld’s situation, but Chua’s had not been made public—only the dean’s office and the student complainants knew about it. Chua was outraged that the student newspaper had divulged a private disciplinary matter. She told me that her Gen Z daughter Lulu, the former violin prodigy, encouraged her to come out swinging. “She’s, like, ‘You have to fight the narrative,’ so I just did something shocking,” Chua said. She wrote an open letter saying that she’d been falsely accused and described a Zoom call with the Yale Law dean in which she’d been treated “degradingly, like a criminal.” She also claimed that she had been barred from teaching a small-group class without receiving an explanation from the dean’s office. “I sent it to my entire faculty, and I tweeted it,” Chua said. “Ever since then, it’s been kind of an escalating nightmare.” SlateFox News, and the Post picked up the story. Earlier this month, the Times published an investigation into what has become known as “Dinner Party-gate.” ...

From certain vantage points, everyone in this story looks unsympathetic: the law-school students tattling on their classmates; the women’s group policing the behavior of female faculty; the inscrutable dean; the disgraced Rubenfeld. The most difficult riddle of all, of course, is Amy Chua. There seem to be so many versions of her: the immigrant striver, the iconoclastic writer, the sharp-elbowed networker, the warm and nurturing mentor, and the Hillary Clinton-like spouse—both a victim of and a possible co-conspirator in her husband’s alleged improprieties. And yet, whatever she is, it’s working, to some extent. This past semester, post-Dinner Party-gate, ninety-eight per cent of students who submitted an evaluation for her class recommended the course. (A student told me that this was the highest approval rating of any class she took this past semester.) Chua told me, “You look at the students who are upset with me, and then all of the students who wrote in positively. You’ll see that, in some ways, they’re talking about the same features.” The behavior at the heart of her troubles—a loose sense of boundaries, and an apparent lack of impulse control—strikes some people as charming and humanizing, and others as repellant.

I asked Chua if she’d ever heard of the film, or the “cool mom” stereotype. She hadn’t. But, she said, “I think maybe you’re on to something. And I know it’s not a positive thing you’re suggesting, but I’m just kind of owning up to it. . . . I mean, I was the nerd with glasses growing up. Completely outsider. I wasn’t bullied, but I was just a studious person, with an accent for most of my childhood. And so, maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s fun to be, like, ‘Wow. The students like me.’ ”

I was struck by the contrast between Chua the Tiger Mother and Chua the professor. In the book, Chua describes herself as harsh and authoritarian. But with the students she’s chosen as mentees, she seems to be very different: supportive and encouraging—almost an ideal mother. (Chua’s daughters have pointed this out, too.) The less flattering accounts of Chua’s drinking and gossiping with students reminded me of a very American parenting stereotype: the “cool mom,” as exemplified by Amy Poehler’s character in “Mean Girls.” In that film, the character attempts to ingratiate herself with the friends of her teen-age daughter by crossing boundaries. She tells them, “I’m not like a regular mom. I’m a cool mom.” She asks them, “What is the hot gossip?” and offers them alcohol. It doesn’t end well. In response, her daughter shuns her, saying, “Mom, could you go fix your hair?”

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