The Tiger Mom and The Hornet's Nest
New York magazine|June 7 - 20, 2021
For two decades, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld were Yale Law power brokers. A new generation wants to see them exiled.
By Irin Carmon. Photograph by Gillian Laub

"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 semiderisively 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. Yet lately, Chua is the one on the public defensive.

It 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, screengrabbed 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 has said she was blindsided by the story and denied violating any agreement, or hosting parties, though she does admit to inviting students into her home for mentorship. “I was publicly humiliated with a total falsehood,” she tells me, “and I was treated degradingly.”

At first, she planned to stay quiet, she says, until her daughter Lulu (the rebellious cub in Tiger Mother, now a law student herself) encouraged her to defend herself publicly. Chua published a 67-page PDF of glowing letters from students, some of whom she concedes were about to be graded by her, and her own incensed letters to the faculty. She tweeted her way from New Haven into national cancel culture martyrdom, defended by the likes of Bari Weiss and Megyn Kelly, who claimed Chua was really being punished for championing Brett Kavanaugh.

The text messages depict students who believed going to Chua’s house would score them a clerkship. 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 Dean, I have a responsibility to create a community in which all of our students can thrive,” Gerken said through a spokesperson. “When a faculty member violates our rules and norms, it undermines all the good that comes from an environment where faculty respect and support our students.”

Every so often, as Chua and I speak, I can hear footsteps, but it’s possible they belong to an aging Samoyed that Chua periodically gets up to tend to and scold. I finally ask if Rubenfeld, who has already declined an interview for this story, is at home. Chua hesitates. “He was out earlier. But he might be back. But I don’t think I can get him to talk,” she says. Does she think he should? “We just live our own lives,” she replies. “I think it’s just his choice.”

Rubenfeld was chattier this past August, when I wrote about his suspension. On the phone, he “absolutely, unequivocally” denied sexually harassing anyone, verbally or otherwise, and attributed his punishment to a backlash against his scholarship. “I think subsequent to me having written some controversial articles about sexual assault,” he said, “that I became a target of people making false allegations against me.” (One of the students who lodged a complaint calls Rubenfeld “the Louis C.K. of legal academia.”)

The actual allegations and the proceedings have been strictly confidential. This frustrates many faculty members. “I don’t know if he got away with something or he got capital punishment for jaywalking,” says one. “Maybe you do. I don’t.”

Over the past few months, I’ve read hundreds of pages of confidential documents from multiple sexual-harassment complaints against Rubenfeld and spoken to some of the accusers who went through the Title IX process. The oldest formal allegation against him involves events as far back as 20 years ago, and as recently as 2017. They reported verbal harassment, unwanted touching, and attempted kissing; the complainants include women who never joined the public opposition to his work on sexual assault. The documents show that multiple Yale faculty members refused to participate in the investigation “because they feared retaliation by Rubenfeld and/or Professor Amy Chua.”

Chua, who has chosen to meet me in her daughter’s old shirt and leggings with a hole in the knee, says she doesn’t recognize herself in this portrayal. “It’s been really an adjustment to suddenly see myself described as this incredibly connected, ruthless, powerful person that wields so much power in the clerkship process,” Chua says. “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.” She adds, “My own self-perception is kind of as the underdog.”

When Chua calls herself an underdog, it is in reference to her husband. In Tiger Mother, she writes that she “always worried that law wasn’t really my calling,” adding, “I didn’t care about the rights of criminals the way others did, and I froze whenever a professor called on me.” As for Rubenfeld, whom she met at Harvard Law School and married in 1988, she writes, “for fun, he wrote a 100-page article on the right of privacy—it just poured out of him.” It was published in the Harvard Law Review, a coup for a recent graduate working in corporate law, and Yale came calling for him in 1990.

“He got hired in this way that was seen as the old boys’ network operating for a young man,” says one female colleague. Chua joined a decade later after, by her own account, bombing the interview and landing at Duke in the interim. Students at Yale Law School had begun to organize around the fact that there was only one woman of color on the tenure track, and they embraced Chua, who gamely threw herself into the mentoring and clerkship process.

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.” Around the time the Obama administration began pushing universities to crack down on sexual misconduct, in 2011, Rubenfeld began to explore new terrain: critiquing rape law. “The Riddle of Rape-by-Deception and the Myth of Sexual Autonomy” appeared in the Yale Law Journal in 2013, and the topic preoccupied him in class, too.

“He would give these examples that started out being sort of okay and take it further and further. He asked if it was okay to penetrate a baby,” a student who was in his small group in fall 2014 tells me. “Then he said, ‘You use a spoon to feed a baby.’” One of her classmates stared at him blankly when he did this, but she decided she would push back. “I think he liked it when people engaged in the lunacy of his arguments,” she says.

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