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On Amy Chua, Yale Law and the Cauldron of Nonsense (1)

June 28, 2021, 4:52 PM

She’s the Kim Kardashian of legal academia. We know there’s no rational reason why we keep following the saga of Amy Chua—a.k.a. Tiger Mom—but we keep watching the show anyhow.

In the latest episode, Chua is battling Yale Law School, students, academics, and the privileged segment that eats this stuff up. It’s a reality show for the elite!

The backstory: In March, a group of Yale law students accused Chua of hosting dinner parties filled with legal luminaries during the pandemic, in violation of a 2019 agreement she made with the law school that limited her social conduct with students. The New York Times reported that the students told the dean that it would be “unsafe” to entrust Chua with teaching the “small group”—a first year class limited to 15 students that’s a Yale tradition. Though the party evidence that the students presented ultimately proved sketchy, the upshot was that Chua was taken off the small group, and Chua is now crying foul.

This all might be dismissed as an internecine food fight except that it involves Chua—a polarizing, glamorous figure who blasted onto our cultural landscape ten years ago with her controversial memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother"—and Yale, the most prestigious law school in the land.

Amy Chua
Courtesy of Amy Chua

From where I sit, there isn’t a soul who doesn’t have an opinion about Chua—and it’s usually not positive. When I told people that I was planning to interview her, the reactions ranged from, “Ugh, why are you giving that woman a platform?” to “I hope you give her hell!”

Chua also gets under the skin of her fellow academics. Stanford law professor Michele Dauber tweeted in April: “Yeah fuck Amy Chua and fuck Yale for forcing students to do the work of getting rid of her and her gross husband. Of course the entire elite profession mostly doesn’t care about harassment or rape so there you go.”

Not exactly what you’d expect from a law professor. Somehow, Chua triggers those feelings. What’s going on? Is Chua the most odious, reprehensible law professor in the land? Or is the antipathy she’s encountering way over the top?

Some lawyers of color feel Chua is getting slammed for being bodacious. One Asian American female lawyer texted me: “I think she’s being unfairly punished because of her self-promoting, unreserved behavior. I don’t like seeing one of our sisters being silenced!”

Speaking as a small Asian woman with a big voice who writes opinions that often get people hot and bothered, I feel a certain affinity with other small Asian women who have a penchant for getting into trouble.

Ever since Chua came out with her Tiger Mom book (quite funny, in my opinion) she’s been reduced to caricature: Mommy Dearest crossed with Dragon Lady. In 2014, she was also criticized for being a racist for her book “Triple Package,” co-authored with her husband Jed Rubenfeld, that looked at why certain ethnic groups succeed. In 2018, she was dubbed a right wing avatar for supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. (It also came out that she advised female students to dress fetchingly because Kavanaugh preferred attractive clerks.)

Then last year, Yale suspended her husband for two years, after he was accused of sexual harassment by several female students (he denies the charges) She’s since been portrayed as an aider and abetter—almost a Ghislane Maxwell figure.

Chua courts controversy. Arguably, she relishes the attention. She knows how to command the press to direct the narrative—posing in her five-inch heels for a profile in The New Yorker and striking a Wonder Woman pose with her big Samoyed dogs for New York Magazine.

She’s brash, flashy, and vocal, but could gender and race expectations factor in how she’s treated and perceived?

Chua told me she’s opposed to “identity politics” and initially resisted those explanations. What changed her mind, though, was how she got booted from teaching the small group: “I had to read about it in the Yale Daily News,” which “is disrespectful.” She added that Heather Gerken, dean of Yale Law, treated her dismissively during a call in April when she tried to explain the circumstances of her meeting with students at her home: “I felt this reversion to being the only Asian kid in Indiana when I was four or five years old. . . Do they not understand what I’m saying? I think I’m speaking good English.”

Chua said that she feels cast in two contradictory Asian stereotypes. On one hand, she said she’s told, “you’re being deceitful and cunning, and you’re pressuring students and dominating them”—the Dragon Lady trope. At the same time, she said Yale expected her to be obedient: “They’re assuming I’m just a docile Asian who will just take it.” She added, “how many mixed anti-Asian stereotypes are being applied to me?”

(Yale Law’s spokesperson sent me an email that reiterated Chua’s 2019 agreement “not to invite students to her home or out to drinks for the foreseeable future.” Yale said Chua had “publicly acknowledged several times that in early 2021" that “she was having students to her home and serving food and alcohol during a dangerous winter spike of the pandemic. . .Sound judgment factors into whether an instructor should lead a small group course. When the Dean accepts a faculty member’s offer to withdraw from a course, the matter is closed. Professor Chua continues to teach other courses at the Law School.”)

Whether Chua resigned or was forced out from the small group is an open question. As for the gathering at her home that got her in trouble earlier this year, Chua emailed me that she hosted two students—a Black woman and a gay Asian man—because they were “in distress about a racist incident at the law journal.”

In any case, many of Chua’s students are on her side and feel sexism and racism play some part. “If a White male professor did what she’s been accused of doing, I can’t imagine he’d be treated the same,” says a Black male associate at a prestigious New York-based firm who graduated in 2019. A recent female graduate agrees: “A lot of White faculty members have gotten away with far worse,” citing racially insensitive and sexist comments made in class. She also adds that Chua is the only Asian American female full-time academic (non clinical) law professor at Yale Law, which the school confirmed. “It’s mainly White men roaming the halls.”

Chua has a reputation for taking students of color, first generation students, and those who are generally marginalized under her wings. “I had no idea what a clerkship or Skadden was,” says James Shih, Yale Law class of 2013, who now heads global projects and legal for SEMCORP Group. “Professor Chua was the only person at YLS who bothered to explain these things to me. I wouldn’t have even applied for a clerkship without her and probably wouldn’t have had the same career as I’ve had so far.”

Though Chua has been accused of running an exclusive club (people on campus call her mentees the “Chua Pets”), marginalized students say she’s the opposite of elitist. “Some professors will only talk to you if you fit the mode—if you’re on a journal or went to prestigious undergrad—but that’s not who she is,” says a recent female Yale graduate, who’s Black. Adds the male New York associate: “Her students love her—whether they’re Black, Asian or Hispanic—because she took it upon herself to make sure minority students have the same resources. No one has taken the time to mentor students the way she has. She knew all our names and backgrounds.” He adds, “when my mother passed last year, she spoke to me for hours.”

Clearly, Chua has ardent fans. I got so many messages from students offering testimonials that I was wondering what she put in their cocktails. But Chua’s popularity at Yale seems real. For instance, her classes have long waiting lists and students gave her a phenomenal 98% approval rating for her teaching.

So why is this adored professor so despised by so many?

Enter again her husband, Jed Rubenfield. “People group her with husband—it’s like what happened with Hillary Clinton,” says a former Chua student. “She’s been vilified for her husband’s conduct.” This student adds she’s no fan of Rubenfeld: “He’s universally disdained. Her supporters don’t necessarily like Jed or want him to come back. That she’s viewed as part of same package is sexist.”

It is sexist, yet I often hear—from women—that Chua must be held accountable for her husband’s alleged behavior or is somehow complicit. In fact, University of Michigan Law School professor Leah Litman tweeted a letter from an anonymous student who wrote that Chua hosted “soirees” that served “as a hunting ground for victims of his alleged sexual misconduct.” (Litman has not responded to my request for comment. Chua says she doesn’t know Litman.)

Would Chua’s critics be placated if she dumped him? I asked Chua about the state of her marriage and the charges against Rubenfeld. She declined to comment about the charges but said, “we’re a very close family,” adding, “marriages are difficult.” (Hmm.)

What’s frustrating to Chua and her supporters is that the most vociferous critics seem to be people who don’t know her. Chua said the students who complained to the dean are not former students: “And I don’t believe I’ve ever met them.”

One of her former female student puts it: “It’s the Woke Olympics at Yale.”

That might be true, but shouldn’t Chua know better? Didn’t she get the memo that faculty members shouldn’t tell female students how to dress to get a job, get drunk with students, gossip, and generally let their hair down in this era?

Now chastened, Chua told me she’s learned her lesson: “I like big parties and socializing, but I’m much more careful with students now. I don’t offer anything personal about myself.”

Even assuming Chua pushed the envelope (and I’m not convinced she did anything truly egregious), the scorn she’s received seems out of proportion. Which brings me back to how race and gender factor in the equation.

It’s hard to imagine the Tiger Mom being the victim of sexism, racism or any “ism.” While there’s no sign of blatant discrimination, could unconscious bias be at play? As we know, women—particularly those of color—still get knocked down harder for stepping out of line.

Chua has not stayed in her designated lane. She’s doesn’t conform to our usual idea of the stuffy Ivy League law professor. And she definitely breaks the stereotype of the demure, quiet Asian.

But what’s wrong with that?

This column has been corrected and updated to include the fact that Amy Chua is the sole Asian American female nonclinical law professor at Yale.

To contact the columnist: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

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