Saturday, July 31, 2021

Amy Chua at Yale

It's from Elizabeth Bruenig, who is a phenomenal writer.

She used to write at both WaPo and the New York Times. I'll bet she's making bank now, and I'm surprised the Atlantic has such deep pockets. *Shrug.*

At Atlantic Monthly, "The New Moral Code of America’s Elite: Two students went to Amy Chua for advice. That sin would cost them dearly":

Every striver who ever slipped the rank of their birth to ascend to a higher order has shared the capacity to ingratiate themselves with their betters. What the truly exceptional ones have in common is the ability to connect not only with their superiors but also with their peers and inferiors. And only the rarest talents among them can bond authentically—not just transactionally—with the people who will help them be who they want to be in the world. It’s a preternatural, almost Promethean gift if you have it, and Amy Chua does.

Thus begins the scandal dubbed “dinner-party-gate,” the latest in the annals of Amy Chua, Yale Law’s very own Tiger Mom, whose infamous defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the “dinner-party-gate” of its day approximately three years ago. Then, as now, Chua’s differences with some denizens of her milieu played out in the press, vituperations, allegations, insinuations, and all.

But whatever Chua had done this time, it was either so terrible that it was unspeakable, or so minuscule that it didn’t warrant mentioning in the pages of The New York Times, New York magazine, or The New Yorker. Even so, each outlet gave the mysterious affair a lengthy report. The New York Times declared the conflagration “murky,” something to do with Chua breaking her 2019 agreement with Yale Law School about socializing with students in off-campus settings; The New Yorker noted that the alleged get-togethers had taken place during the pandemic, and considered the rest “a riddle.” Nobody could produce a complainant or a victim; the only thing anyone seemed able to verify was that, whatever Chua had done last winter, the result was that this coming fall, she would no longer be leading a first-year “small group”—intimate cohorts of first-semester law students who are guided through their first few months by a faculty member who teaches, advises, and, per a 2020 budget memorandum from the Law School, likely lunches and dines with the lawyers-to-be.

The reporting left open a pair of related questions: What, exactly, had happened? And, perhaps more salient, if what took place really was something on the order of a minor violation of an ad hoc agreement between Chua and the Yale Law School dean, Heather Gerken, why had the news spilled into the nation’s most prominent news outlets rather than fading below the fold of a campus daily?

It appears to me that what transpired amounts to a skirmish between a notorious professor and an administration that seemed so eager to relieve itself of her presence that it lunged at an opportunity to weaken her position at the expense of two students who were left to deal with the consequences of the ultimately aborted campaign. Still, the answer to the latter question is more revealing than any single aspect of the whole affair. It has to do with the culture of elite institutions, where putatively righteous ends justify an array of troubling means, and noble public virtues like fairness and safety cloak more prosaic motives—the kind of vulgar envy and resentment that people with the best manners deny.

Everyone is just trying to get ahead, after all; this is no less true, and perhaps even more true, at a place like Yale Law School. It just comes more naturally to some than others. In that case one must take matters into one’s own hands.

The proximate drama begins with a trio of second-year law students, friends and acquaintances for a time. There was a person I’ll call the Guest—all three students asked not to be named, and, believing young people should have a chance at carrying on after having their reputation destroyed or destroying the reputation of others, I agreed—who was born and raised in California. He’d arrived at Yale Law School optimistic and younger than most, having come directly from UCLA. During his first semester, he’d befriended the Visitor, a young woman from a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, who had arrived on campus from Emory. The two made a happy pair: the Guest dreamier and prone to touches of poetry, occasionally drawn to Byzantine history and Christian theology; the Visitor shrewd, practical, and levelheaded, with a keen focus on the concrete facts of policies, problems, current affairs. After working together on a major project that fall, they became and remained close.

And then there was the Archivist, a young man whom the Guest had also befriended early in his time at Yale. The two young men bonded after meeting in their contracts class, after which they would find one another at bars and parties to chat about history, politics, and other shared interests. They met up in New York City for a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Guest eventually gave the Archivist a key to his apartment, where the latter would often stop by to visit or do his laundry. In the second semester of their second year, things seemed placid.

And they may have remained that way, had it not been for a minor snag in the Guest’s academic year that put him on a path that would eventually lead him to Amy Chua’s doorstep.

A natural provocateur, Chua has vexed the Law School for years: First with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a wry ode to the high-pressure parenting tactics of Chinese matriarchs, which didn’t thrill the gently-brought-up sorts who sometimes pass through New England’s finest universities; then with The Triple Package, a book co-authored with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, on the specific qualities that enable certain cultural groups to succeed in America relative to others—you can imagine how that went over—then with a Wall Street Journal op-ed taking a stand for the embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who, she said, was a “mentor to women,” including her own daughter. All throughout, Chua routinely scandalized the school by making edgy comments (allegedly remarking that Kavanaugh preferred his female clerks on the comely side, for instance, which Chua says is a gross distortion) and, yes, having students over for dinner, serving alcohol, and declining to filter her decidedly piquant inner monologue.

There is another side to Chua. It seems that for every student who emerges from her acquaintance embittered and put off, someone else comes away with nothing but the fondest of feelings for her. Her Twitter feed is peppered with spontaneous congratulations for her accomplished students, and features photos of the professor embracing former protégés in celebration of their success. During this latest contretemps, students advocated in Chua’s favor—quietly, perhaps, but with no less fervor than their anti-Chua counterparts. On April 1, a student emailed a trio of Law School deans: “Professor Chua cares more about her students than any other professor I’ve encountered at YLS. Professor Chua does more to advocate for her students than any other professor I’ve encountered at YLS. Professor Chua does more to mentor her students than any other professor I’ve encountered at YLS,” he insisted. “As you are all likely aware, I am far from the only student who feels this way. Does that not count for anything?” A PDF compilation of student and alumni letters in support of Chua spanned nearly 70 pages of similar sentiments.

Chua’s gift for relationships has also vested her with a great deal of power. Chua does know judges; she does have connections. It’s inconceivable that anyone on staff at Yale doesn’t. But Chua’s roster is either unusually expansive or perceived as such or both, and her status as a legal-career “kingmaker” has cast her in a supercharged penumbra. It’s the sort of mystique that can breed all kinds of resentments, especially in an environment where relationships with people in power are a finite resource.

Then there are Chua’s private, personal relationships—most notably, with her husband, Rubenfeld, a fellow Yale Law professor whose time at the university has been stained of late by allegations of sexual misconduct with students. Per a 23-page brief prepared by Yale Law Women, a respected student advocacy group with a formidable reputation for defending women’s interests on campus, the Rubenfeld saga stretches back to at least 2008, when a poster on the Top Law Schools forum obliquely mentioned rumors of monthly parties at Chua and Rubenfeld’s residence. A decade hence, Dean Gerken hired Jenn Davis, an independent Title IX investigator, to look into a range of allegations concerning Rubenfeld’s behavior with female students, from drunken, unwelcome, off-color remarks to unwanted touching and attempted kissing, on and off school grounds. Rubenfeld has categorically denied the claims. In its report, Yale Law Women said that fear of retaliation by Chua—concern that she would sabotage opportunities for career advancement—discouraged women who resented Rubenfeld’s advances from complaining about them to the administration.

At the conclusion of Davis’s investigation, Rubenfeld was suspended from his duties for two years, a penalty that took effect in 2020. Instead of closing the matter, Rubenfeld’s penalty seemed to strike concerned student groups such as Yale Law Women as a half-measure that would leave the matter to simmer until student turnover and the passage of time permitted another eruption.

Not that the Guest had any reason to contemplate any of this when, early in the spring semester of 2021, he decided to step down as an executive editor at the Yale Law Journal. The Guest, who describes himself as half-Korean, had misgivings about the way the journal’s staff had responded to his questions about the lack of racial diversity in its ranks, and his suggestions for addressing it. Still, even after making his decision, the Guest felt uncertain and unsettled. He confided this to the Visitor, who as a Black student at Yale Law had wrestled with similar questions, and she took it upon herself to bring them up with Chua during a Zoom meeting that served in place of the professor’s usual office hours. At that point, the Visitor recalls, Chua casually offered to talk with the two of them about the Journal affair at her home in New Haven, and the Visitor called the Guest to pass the invitation along.

Unfortunately for the Guest, the Archivist happened to be doing his laundry at his friend’s apartment when the call came, and he overheard the conversation, later documenting it as follows:

Feb. 18. I go over to [the Guest’s] to do my laundry. While at his apartment, I hear him call [the Visitor], who explains to him that Chua has just invited them over for dinner tomorrow. They discuss what to wear and what they should bring (ultimately deciding to bring a bottle of wine). [The Guest] makes zero mention of going over because of any personal crisis. After the phone call, he says that he’s been invited to a dinner party at Chua’s. [The Guest] implores me not to tell anybody so that Chua doesn’t get in trouble.

Despite his gumshoe efforts, the Archivist seemed to come away with a vastly different impression of the meeting than Chua, the Guest, or the Visitor.

The Guest and the Visitor independently told me that the meeting took place sometime in the afternoon, and that Chua offered cheese and crackers, but mentioned that she had dinner plans later on. The Guest recalled that he offered the bottle of wine as a hostess gift, which Chua accepted, though she drank only canned seltzer; the Guest opened the wine, meanwhile, and recalls pouring some for himself.

The Visitor recalled a fairly serious conversation: Chua offered advice about how the Guest should handle the brewing tempest his decision had spawned in their shared teapot. “He was getting press requests,” the Visitor told me. “Should he talk to the press? Professors are like, ‘What happened?’ Should he tell professors? Should he tell anyone? Or should he internalize it? Should he tell judges? Judges are clearly going to know about this, and I’m sure they do. And she wanted to know the full story of what happened. I think a big question was ‘Did I make a mistake?’”

The Guest came away from the conversation feeling reassured. The Archivist, however, was perturbed. Earlier that day, he’d texted two friends that the Guest and the Visitor were “going to dinner” at Chua’s, which, he added, they were “banned by the law school from doing.” One friend replied that this was weird, to which the Archivist replied: “Weird is a nice way to put it!” Chastened, the friend tried again: “So they are still ok with nepotism and complicity as long as it benefits them?” That was the ticket. “Yup!” the Archivist replied. Moments later, the Archivist sent a text that seemed to be more of a press release than a remark: “I think it’s deliberately enabling the secret atmosphere of favoritism, misogyny, and sexual harassment that severely undermines the bravery of the victims of sexual abuse that came forward against Rubenfeld,” he declared. How, why, or whether the Guest or the Visitor actually did any such thing was evidently left to the reader to infer.

Later that night, the Archivist logged a call with the Guest in which, he later said, the Guest sounded “extremely intoxicated”; the Guest denies that he was. By March, the Journal imbroglio was boiling over into the public sphere. Several of the school’s affinity groups had released statements, and the Journal had released information about the racial makeup of its editors—then the conflict came to the attention of conservative media outlets. Once more, the Guest had a series of questions for someone familiar with bad press.

This time, the Guest and the Visitor brought a premade date-and-cheese plate, the sort of appetizer offering, I gather, that you pick up at Wegmans on the way to Bible study. Again the two of them joined Chua at her New Haven manse for what sounds more like a media-strategizing session than the kind of debauched rager that would eventually possess the imaginations of Chua’s campus detractors. Again, the Archivist recorded the get-together in his notes: March 13: [The Guest] texts me again at 9:18 PM that he’s outside, indicating he has once again gone to Chua’s but won’t commit to saying so in writing

At that point, it seems, the Archivist had finally had enough. It was time to tell the administration what they had done.

When I was a little girl growing up in suburban North Texas not so very long ago, my grandmother, a housewife of the ’60s, would turn my cousins and me outside to play in the summer so she could sit at her kitchen table and chain-smoke her way through her library of paperback bodice-rippers. And when one of us would inevitably bolt back inside to complain about being annihilated with a Super Soaker at close range or nailed with a Nerf dart to the eye, she would always eject us with the same dismissal: Don’t be a tattletale. As far as childhood admonishments go, it was an interesting one—she wasn’t telling us not to do something, but rather not to be something...

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