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. 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, 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 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.
Before setting foot on Yale’s campus, at the age of 25, Rubenfeld’s student felt she had a sense of what fancy institutions were like; she had gone to small private schools her whole life. The collegiate Gothic hall was lined with the portraits of Yale’s eminences, which at that time numbered 74 men and six women, all of the women white except Eleanor Holmes Norton. Tracey Meares, Yale Law’s first tenured Black woman, had emailed to encourage the student to join the law school as part of an outreach to accepted students of color. At the time, the young woman’s ambitions were vague, but she liked the challenge of the law. “I think the law-school culture really pushes people into clerkships,” she says. She and her classmates weren’t going to be graded that first semester, which meant the judges who had begun to recruit for prized clerkships as early as that summer would rely substantially on professors’ endorsements.
Small-group professors get a budget for socializing, and most of this student’s small-group gatherings were held at bars or a house where there was drinking. Not all small groups drank together — some went apple picking or played stickball — but that in itself wasn’t unusual. Rubenfeld would often send out emails with the subject line “emergency drinks,” and there were lots of emergencies. He would buy the first round. One night, at Cask Republic, the student ordered Scotch. She liked Scotch, but she says now that, if she’s honest with herself, her choice was also a performance, a show of toughness. Rubenfeld, impressed, ordered a second round of whiskey just for the two of them. When he drank, she remembers, Rubenfeld would start leaning toward her, touching her arm or the small of her back as he joined a conversation, or staring into her eyes.
She had heard rumors that Rubenfeld slept with students. Last summer, when the Guardian asked Rubenfeld if he had sexual relationships with Yale students, he responded, “I have never had a sexual relationship with one of my students.” (Until the late ’90s, such relationships weren’t forbidden by the university.)
And she had heard about Chua’s make-or-break reputation for getting clerkships — that she would shepherd them through the process, including how to sell themselves and to whom, and that judges looked to her for her frank takes on the students. Fully half of Yale’s law-school classes clerk, but not all clerkships are created equal. So-called feeder judges on federal circuit courts are most prized because they provide the clearest pipeline to clerking on the Supreme Court, which is not only prestigious but lucrative: The typical signing bonus for such a clerk at a law firm is $400,000, not counting the six-figure starting salary. Six of the nine current justices clerked on the Court themselves. The student did not shrink from Rubenfeld’s touch.
Another night, the student says, she sat at one end of the table as Rubenfeld asked the students about rape. He said he was working on an op-ed for the New York Times challenging how rape was adjudicated, especially on campus, and he wanted to know their take. If they were drunk, would they have sex with someone who was also drunk? What would they do if their partner wanted them to do something they weren’t comfortable with during a sexual encounter? The statistic that one in five women had been raped — was that true in their experience?
“I felt very agitated at the time,” the student tells me. “The fact that he was questioning things like, Does sexual assault happen in the ways in which it is reported?” But the point of Yale Law School, she was told, was to get close to professors, and later she would tell the Title IX committee that, in this moment, she understood, Okay, I guess that to get close to professors, you have to go drinking with them and engage in intrusive and strange conversations about your sex life. (At that Title IX hearing, Rubenfeld denied ever being drunk around students or asking specific questions about their sex lives. Had he asked her those questions? He “would not have done it unless she brought it up first.”)
On October 23, 2014, Rubenfeld held a party at his home for his small-group students past and present. The party was upstairs in the more casual third-floor attic, where she noticed that many of the books on the shelves seemed to be written by Rubenfeld. He and Chua had just co-authored The Triple Package, which argues that certain ethnic groups have succeeded through a combination of a superiority complex, insecurity, and self-control.
The student showed up late, still wearing the low-backed blue peplum dress she had chosen for a banquet earlier that night. She had had a glass of wine at that event, but by the time she arrived, everyone had been drinking a lot, and she thought Rubenfeld looked drunk. A few hours later, it was time to leave. As she descended from the attic, her stiletto heel caught on the narrow, winding staircase, and she fell with a clattering thud. First came the embarrassment: Would people think she had drunk more than she had? Next came the sensation of Rubenfeld swooping in, helping her to her feet, and, she says, “cradling me.”
As much as the conversations about sexual assault had upset her, she says, “I also felt like I thought there was good faith on his part.” That ended when his face was inches away from hers. “The basis of my Title IX complaint is that he tried to kiss me,” she says. “At that point, I figured out that it wasn’t theoretical.”
Rubenfeld’s New York Times op-ed appeared three weeks later under the headline “Mishandling Rape.” He began by decrying rape, then, expanding on his critique of sexual autonomy as a guiding principle, accused universities of inflating its definition. Universities had adopted a standard of consent that required “conditions free of coercive pressures, intoxication and power imbalances,” he wrote, but “in fact, sex with someone under the influence is not automatically rape.” All of this “redefinition of consent,” he wrote, would lead “people to think of themselves as sexual assault victims when there was no assault.”
His choice of topic raised some eyebrows among his colleagues. “The conspiratorial-minded among us see that as strategically defensive,” says fellow law professor Doug Kysar.
Rubenfeld was plainly fond of this kind of line-blurring in his work. Students whispered about how his first novel, the thriller The Interpretation of Murder, placed a sexualized killing in a Manhattan building based on the Ansonia, where he and Chua own an apartment. One alum told me the students jokingly referred to this as the “rape apartment” because of the fictional assault that took place in the fictional Balmoral. (No rape is alleged to have taken place in the Ansonia apartment.) That book had sold well in the U.K., but it was nothing compared to the PR supernova that was Chua’s Tiger Mother. The Triple Package, on the other hand, was a commercial and critical disappointment.
The couple’s daughter Sophia, then an undergraduate at Harvard, told The New Yorker that her sister “keeps reading aloud all these tweets saying, ‘The Tiger Mom is back, and she’s still racist!’ It sends my mom into paralyses of depression, actually. But my dad totally thrives on confrontation. He’s, like, ‘Overshadowed by my wife again! Why am I not being called a racist, too?’ ” In an exhaustive review of The Triple Package in Time, Suketu Mehta lamented, “The pity is that this book, and this entire line of argument, is taken seriously — among my relatives, for instance — when all the scholars I’ve consulted laugh at it.” That June, the Times threw an “Opinion”-page party. There, Mehta tells me, Rubenfeld put his hand on his shoulder in a way Mehta considered menacing and threatened to “slug” him. (Rubenfeld wrote in an email at the time that he told Mehta he wouldn’t slug him. At the same party, Mehta says, Chua “very pleasantly put out a hand and said, ‘I know you didn’t like my book, but I love your novels.’ And I said, ‘I haven’t written any.’ ”)
Students furiously debated Rubenfeld’s Times op-ed on the campus listserv. Two students, including feminist organizer Alexandra Brodsky — who three years earlier, as an undergraduate, had joined a Title IX complaint against Yale College — circulated an open letter saying that Rubenfeld’s “formulation of the problem is both disconnected from the reality victims face on the ground and wrong on the law.” Nearly 100 students signed, and a town hall was held to debate the issues raised by the op-ed. Rubenfeld went.
He also emailed his small group apologetically: “I want you all to know that I know that I’ve made it hard for you guys this week. You didn’t ask to have a professor who wrote what I wrote in the Times last Sunday.” He said he wanted the students to feel comfortable disagreeing with him publicly and added, “Obviously it goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — but things like references or recommendations will in no way be affected by anything anyone says, or doesn’t say, on this topic.”
Not everyone thought it went without saying, though they were more worried about Chua retaliating. Two people told Slate in 2018 that around that time, they had heard her say at a drinks event that she would “call every justice on the Supreme Court” to block one of the letter organizers from a clerkship there. (Chua, producing a confidential document from the dean confirming she was cleared of the charge of actually retaliating against students, now says, “I helped more students who had signed something against my husband than all of the rest of the faculty put together.”)
The small-group student saw Rubenfeld’s email to the group that fall as a manipulation. “He loved the small group because we were there as his No. 1 fans,” she says. “It was so obvious to me that he needed that validation. So that’s what I gave him.” Her email in response to his threaded the needle: “I wanted you to know that I’ve been thinking about this situation and I stand with you. That said, I come from the same perspective as many of your most spirited opponents.” After laying out her views — she was frustrated that the concerns of survivors were being minimized but wary of institutional responses, both court and university sanctioned — she wrote, “Ultimately, I wanted to say that I never felt that you had to apologize to me as a student in your small group.” Her goal, she said later, was to get him to stop talking about it.
Amy Chua had her own ideas about how to build bonds between classmates. In the fall of 2017, she had all of her small-group students sit in a circle in her living room and invited each one to tell their most embarrassing story. Her favorites were known as Chua Pets; among her mentees were J. D. Vance and Ronan Farrow. She could be magnetic. “You were loud. Direct. Feminine,” a former Chua Pet wrote to her professor in a letter later circulated on the Wall, a law-school listserv. “You didn’t hesitate to point out and criticize the power structures at YLS.”
No one disputes that Chua has gone out of her way to help students she sees as outsiders. Other professors had office hours; she had entire afternoons blocked off for students. But she wasn’t alone. “The idea that Amy Chua is the only member of the YLS faculty supporting and mentoring students of color here is insulting to many people who do this work,” says Meares, including untenured and clinical faculty.
The student who wrote the letter to Chua said she was drawn to the thrill of her confidence, the willingness to tell “institutional secrets” — not just about barriers for underrepresented students but also the professors who had married their own students. Soon, though, “I started to see and hear things from you that I couldn’t justify, despite what I don’t hesitate to call my love for you.” Chua, the student wrote, would speculate about her students’ sexualities, sometimes disclosed private details of professors’ lives, and mimicked a student with a disability in class one day.
Chua adamantly denies all this. But as a general matter, it is not so different from the way she describes herself in Tiger Mother: “hot-tempered, viper-tongued, fast-forgiving,” and “compulsively cruel.” (Rubenfeld appears in the book at a remove, occasionally popping in to mildly tell his wife that she may want to lay off the girls.)
At the end of November 2017, the letter writer joined her professor and a few other students at Mory’s, a private club. The world was in tumult over abusive men being held accountable, and Chua asked her students if they thought the Me Too reckoning would come for the judiciary. “You went on to mention that a judge named Kavanaugh had a predilection for good-looking clerks,” the student wrote. “You said, however, that you weren’t concerned for your daughter, his future clerk, because she would never put up with that sort of behavior.”
Later that fall, she accepted an invitation to a party Chua and Rubenfeld were having at the Beekman in New York City, where they had just purchased an apartment. There, she wrote, her teacher told her that her “‘big brown beautiful eyes’ were distracting during class because of my sustained eye contact, and inviting Jed to comment on my appearance as well (of course I didn’t think you were hitting on me: I would characterize my reaction as, ‘jeez, how does she not know better?’).” Chua says, “All I’ll say is my memory of every single event that she describes is different than hers.”
Less than a year later, in July, Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. “Many of us had known him, and he had taught for us, and we had read his opinions,” says Kysar, who was deputy dean at the time. “He was a respected voice from that ideological wing of judges. And we had no inkling of the misbehavior and the accusations that would surface against him.”
Chua says, “It’s kind of hard to imagine now, but then-Judge Kavanaugh was kind of like a Yale Law School darling.”
The dean’s office put out a press release quoting professors in praise of Kavanaugh, similar to ones it had issued for fellow alums Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor. The idea, says Kysar, was “let’s put out a tepid statement that says one of our own has been nominated to the Supreme Court” and not much more. That distinction was lost on a portion of the student body. “The students saw it as a deep betrayal of the values that the institution stands up for,” he says. “Maybe they saw the tea leaves better than we did. In hindsight, Trump’s usurpation of the federal judiciary and the larger justice apparatus, and the events of January 6, make that belief we had in the ideals of reasonable disagreement and respect for norms just seem so utterly fucking naïve.”
Chua saw no reason not to celebrate. She returned to the pages of The Wall Street Journal to endorse him. “In the past decade, I have helped place 10 Yale Law School students with Judge Kavanaugh, eight of them women,” she wrote. “These days the press is full of stories about powerful men exploiting or abusing female employees. That makes it even more striking to hear Judge Kavanaugh’s female clerks speak of his decency and his role as a fierce champion of their careers.” She disclosed that her daughter Sophia, a recent graduate of Yale Law, had already been hired to clerk for him on the appeals court. “And just to be clear, because there’s so much misinformation out there,” Chua tells me, “I recused myself from the whole process. That was probably a bad decision too, but just for her to even come to Yale Law School. She probably should have gone to a different law school.”
When Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her as a teenager, “I did not withdraw my support for him,” Chua tells me. “I think everybody else did.” I ask if she believed Ford. “I didn’t think of it that way,” she replies. “I definitely felt something terrible had happened to her, but I just knew that I had worked very closely with this person for ten years, and all I’ll say is I stood by what I wrote in The Wall Street Journal. That’s all.”
Days after Ford came forward, HuffPost and the Guardian reported on Chua’s remarks at Mory’s on the attractiveness of Kavanaugh’s clerks, noting that one student said Rubenfeld had told her the judge liked clerks with a “certain look,” while Chua advised her to “be and dress ‘outgoing’ ” and offered to look at photos of outfits. (I have confirmed this with the student.) At the time, Chua said, “Everything that is being said about the advice I give to students applying to Brett Kavanaugh — or any judge — is outrageous, 100 percent false, and the exact opposite of everything I have stood for and said for the last 15 years.”
Over the years, Chua’s denial has softened. She says that when she wrote that statement she had just been hospitalized for complications from diverticulitis, undergoing multiple surgeries, “and it was probably, again, ill-advised.” She says, “I stupidly made a comment to students on how, one year, his clerks were nice-looking. But I immediately said afterward, ‘But there was absolutely nothing untoward about that.’ And I said that every single student that I had sent to him all raved about what a decent and dedicated and inspiring mentor he was. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written this op-ed about him a year later. So that’s the best I can do to clarify.” She looks over her shoulder. “Hold on, let me just get water for this dog.”
Kavanaugh, of course, was confirmed, still styling himself as a champion of women. Her daughter Sophia tweeted, “Won’t be applying to SCOTUS anytime soon bc will be in the Army. Proud of my brave mom as always.” A year later, she was clerking for Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.
Rubenfeld told me last August, “I, ironically, have written about the unreliability of the campus Title IX procedures. I never expected to go through one of them myself.” In early summer 2018, the law school hired its own investigator, who could hear anonymous complaints outside of Yale’s formal process, though without the university’s authority to discipline him. “I was subjected to a fishing investigation of a kind that I don’t think any professor at Yale University ever has been before,” he said. “An email went out to 20 or 30 years of alumni of the school asking if anyone had any stories they wanted to share about Professor Rubenfeld.”
The emails letting people know Rubenfeld was being investigated came not from the law-school administration but rather the Yale Law Women, a student organization, and from one of the former students who had reported him. She believed that after decades of the school’s inaction, “it felt like now or never in terms of getting people to come forward.” It is true that hiring the investigator is more than the law school had previously done. According to material I have viewed, at least two law-school deans had warned Rubenfeld of his behavior — Harold Koh in 2006 and Robert Post in 2015. These conversations were secret, the alum who sent the email alerting people that Rubenfeld was being investigated pointed out to me, and left each possible complainant siloed.
That was until February 2019, when the universitywide committee, or UWC, which has the power to discipline professors, agreed to try Rubenfeld’s conduct as a pattern, in which each woman’s claim of an unequal educational environment might lend credence to another’s. Rubenfeld would finally know his accusers’ names and allegations and have the right to present rebutting evidence and cross-examine them.
Though she had already spoken to the law school’s investigator about the attempted kiss, Rubenfeld’s 2014 small-group student learned by accident that the investigation had gone to the UWC. Her former small-group teaching fellow called and said Rubenfeld was arguing to the UWC that he had never been drunk around students. Did she remember anything about this? She did, and she agreed to provide a statement.
The teaching fellow had once also been Rubenfeld’s small-group student. What she had experienced was subtle — at first, unnerving stares or Rubenfeld sitting too close to her for too long at a party at J. D. Vance’s house or seeming to find ways for them to meet alone. “Its stress inducing to me,” she texted a friend. “all things jr are stress inducing.” At a late-night meeting to discuss a paper, Rubenfeld changed the subject, asking her why she wasn’t married and saying she must have been the prettiest girl in her high school and that “it must have been tough with the boys, being a smart girl.” (Rubenfeld said in the hearing he took a “fatherly” interest in her.) For the first time, she told another friend and her partner, she wished she were a man. She got the recommendation and the prestigious clerkship, and then Rubenfeld offered her a spot as a teaching fellow. Despite her misgivings, she accepted. She wanted to clerk on the Supreme Court. She told herself she could protect the 1Ls.
The fall she served as his teaching assistant, she says, Rubenfeld seemed to be spinning out of control. At a small-group event, he rattled her by snaking his arm around her waist and squeezing it as he passed. It filled her with shame that she didn’t say anything, and she worried about what the students would think. She also fretted about the student she had asked for a statement, emailing her fellow teaching assistant in December 2014 to “keep her away from rubenfeld.”
The teaching fellow was filled with guilt at not having done enough. She had twice gone to Title IX coordinators at the law school but each time stopped short of taking the steps that would identify her to Rubenfeld. Three years later, in December 2017, she got word that there was a current student who was considering filing a report about Rubenfeld, and she agreed to talk to yet another Title IX coordinator. Now, the aftershocks of Me Too — and the fact that Yale Law had its first female dean — made her think this time might be different.
The small-group student agreed to provide a statement for her former teaching fellow that included the attempted kiss. She had landed in a professional world that made Yale feel far away, and, she says, “I felt confident enough in my position at work that if they come for me, they come for me.” “They,” she clarifies, meant Chua and Rubenfeld. And when the UWC members read her statement and asked if she wanted to make her own report, she thought again. “I defend people who are accused of sex crimes,” she says. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that his liberty is not at stake. We’re not talking about anyone going to jail. We are talking about his ability to wield power over people.”
At the hearing, Rubenfeld denied flirting with the former student or staring at her; if anything, he claimed, it was the other way around. He produced the email she had sent him after the op-ed, saying she stood with him, as well as emails from her classmates saying they couldn’t imagine him doing anything inappropriate. In her own cross-examination, she asked Rubenfeld if he had helped these students obtain clerkships. (Two of them, she remembers him saying, and he didn’t recall about the third.) He also seized on the words she had used when she called her sister the day after the party — that she was “pretty sure” her professor had tried to kiss her. “As a defense attorney, of course I would say the same thing,” she said. Rubenfeld made other defensive maneuvers. In response to a third student’s complaint, he said, “She is not someone I would call attractive.”
Rubenfeld lost his temper. He said he thought the former student had only reported because of “someone with an agenda” who had goaded her to come forward with a false memory: the teaching fellow, who had been his mentee and had not signed or publicly opposed his op-ed. His fury reminded the student of Kavanaugh in his nomination hearings. “In that rant, he let it slip that this is not the first woman who claimed that he tried to kiss her,” she recalls. “He just admitted it happened before.” In the end, the panel found that Rubenfeld had sexually harassed all three of the women when they were his students. They can only guess from the documents how many complainants there were in total among them, since the process was designed to keep them secret from each other.
Each complainant received an appendix quoting anonymized accounts similar to hers. At least six complainants had reported Rubenfeld’s excessive drinking, and six said they believed he had flirted with them. Collectively, they described speaking less in class; rearranging their course schedules to avoid Rubenfeld’s classes, even if they were interested in the topics; experiencing paranoia about getting close to other professors; and wondering whether they could cut it at Yale Law School. One said, “He repeatedly steered our conversations away from my paper toward my looks, my personal life, and things of a sexual nature.”
When the teaching fellow read that, she thought for a moment that it was her own story. The process had cost her hundreds of hours of her life and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Now, at least, she knew it wasn’t just her.
In tenured-faculty terms, a two-year suspension is significant, but some current students were unsatisfied. The Yale Law Women put out a report calling for the university to “permanently remove Jed Rubenfeld from campus and release information regarding the nature of the allegations and findings of the investigation.” (In this, they were united with their ideological opposites.) They asked for “a system for tracking anonymous reports that will allow survivors to file an anonymous record of misconduct and be notified when other reports are filed for the same offender” and for free legal representation for students going through the process. The university has been unmoved. At Yale, firing a tenured professor can be initiated only by the university president, and Peter Salovey has so far declined to do so. A spokesperson for the university said that confidentiality “helps encourage our community members to participate and is consistent with state and federal privacy laws.”
Rubenfeld’s new cause is suing Facebook on behalf of anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy’s nonprofit, saying the company violated the First Amendment, which applies to governments, because it used government standards for misinformation. Previously, Rubenfeld argued that universities also become state actors when they, for example, enforce Title IX rules around sexual misconduct on professors.
At their home, Chua tells me she made her agreement with the dean under duress. “I didn’t want to agree to a lot of things. I felt kind of misunderstood and I felt a little bit assaulted myself,” she says. “I felt that some things were completely unfair. But in the interest of moving on, we negotiated both the statement of regret and then some penalties. I didn’t even read these letters very carefully; I know I’m supposed to be a lawyer.” Assaulted how? “I shouldn’t say assaulted. I felt I was being unfairly accused of many things.”
When she returned to campus after medical leave, she says she told herself, “I know a lot of people will always be very upset at me for my support of Kavanaugh. And some people will be always very upset at me because I’m married to my husband. But I can just keep my head down and just do what I do well.”
She says she still doesn’t know why she was stripped of small group, and that any discussion of violating COVID protocols is retroactive justification. “The house itself was not part of any prohibition?” I ask. After all, Rubenfeld was also under restrictions, and he lives here. “No,” she says. “Nothing like that.”
Later, she’ll send me some documents to substantiate her points, including a letter to the dean so thinly redacted it resembles eyeshadow. Part of the redacted text reads, “While I agreed at our meeting not to invite students to my home or out to drinks for the foreseeable future …” When I ask her about it, she responds she believed “the foreseeable future” to have passed when she was asked to teach a small group in the first place.
The current students I spoke to who had organized against Chua teaching first-years thought it was she who had fanned the flames of clerkship mania. “She oversells or perpetuates the anxieties that make people think they need her,” a current student told me. “I don’t think you need to be drinking buddies with your professor to be professionally successful.” The students who came without connections, this person suggested, were the ones being fleeced.
Near the end of our three hours together, Chua seems tired. “Many of the things that are happening that are terrible experiences for me as a member of this family, I think, are good for society,” she says. Chua and her girlfriends have been talking, “and we’re all like, ‘I can’t believe what we accepted as normal in the workplace.’ ” Now, she says, she would never say, “ ‘Oh, that’s a nice haircut.’ I would never say that anymore. I would never say, ‘Nice earrings.’ ” I suggest this is not the type of thing people are up in arms about. Sometimes, she says, it is.
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.