Letter from a YLS alum to Amy Chua–transcript

4 May

Courtney Milan shared this letter in a twitter thread, starting here. Due to the length of the letter, I am hosting the transcript here. For the record, I am adding screenshots of the pages Ms Milan posted at the end of the post too.

Short background for anyone who needs it: there have long been rumors and conversations about the role Amy Chua played in the sexual harassment/abuse of Yale law students that her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, has been credibly accused of. (Yale law students have been asking that Rubenfeld be completely removed from his teaching position since at least August 2020). Other rumors involve Chua’s alleged grooming of potential law clerks to place them with Brett Kavanaugh when the latter was a federal judge. (Wikipedia)

Please note that I will be indicating with parentheses the places where the letter was redacted; Ms Milan noted in the thread that these redactions were in the copies she was sent, but that it’s likely that Amy Chua received an unredacted version.

Finally, here’s the context provided to Ms Milan, along with the letter itself (screenshot also at the end of the post):

“You do not have to believe that Prof. Chua is all good, or that she is all bad, or that she is mostly one or the other. She has done a lot of good for a lot of students. That is part of why she has gotten away with this for so long. And it’s part of why the bad hurts so much. It’s true that Prof. Chua builds relationships with students in a way that is important and abysmally rare at YLS. There is no excuse for the dearth of women of color on the YLS faculty, or the fact that those women provide such a disproportionate share of mentorship for students. It is still wrong for her to misuse those relationships and betray the trust students place in her. Good and bad don’t cancel out. There is no balancing test. It’s just all true.”

With that out of the way, here’s my transcript of the letter:

To: Professor Amy Chua

CC: Dean Heather Gerken, Dean Ellen Cosgrove, Prof. Michael Wishnie, Prof. Ian Ayres

Dear Professor Chua,

It’s been a long time since we talked last. I’ve thought a lot about you btween then and now.

I am reaching out now, and including Dean Gerken, Dean Cosgrove, and Professors Wishnie and Ayres on this email, because I read the supportive messages you received from current and former students in response to recent YDN allegations. I don know anything about those allegation and I won’t comment on them. However, as someone who once knew you well, I think it’s important to voice my admittedly more complicated thoughts. And because you were once a valued mentor to me, I think you deserve to hear it straight from me.

I want to start by saying that I loved and admired you deeply. I won’t bury the You’: my feelings have changed, been complicated. But in that murk, there is still affection. To me, as a wide-eye 1L, you were singular. Amid academic drudgery and elitist in-speak, you were a refreshing straight shooter in high heels. You were loud. Direct. Feminine. You didn’t hesitate to point out and criticize the power structures at YLSL you talked about the barriers that FGP students faces, you talked about how bizarre it is that multiple YLS faculty are married to former students, you talked about how damaging the “whisper-network” can be. I revered your humor and irreverence. I appreciated your willingness to share institutional secrets. When I head rumors about you, as every YLS inevitably does, I defended you. I felt, feared, and admired your power, your connections, and your hunger for those things. To me, then, in a sea of people crouching behind devil’s advocacy and hypotheticals, you were admirable and unstoppable because you were unapologetic.

You’ve recently characterized your critics as a group of students who don’t know you, so I feel compelled to insist that–certainly to me–our relationship was meaningful. I was grateful for your support and encouragement. You were the only professor in my 1L year, or truthfully during all my time at YLS, who made me feel more than a CV. We shared drinks, we shared meals, you invited me to celebrate your new home in NYC, you met my the-n partner and even his parents, I confided to you about my father’s declining health, you came to a party in my own home, and on and one. When you complimented me, for example when you said I wrote the best memo in your small group, I felt seen and valued beyond measure. I sought out your advice repeatedly that first semester.

But my feelings did change over time. 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. I know memory is funny. Our prejudices and priors prime us for the information we receive. Our perceptive qualities are imperfect, especially when we drink, and it’s no secret or shame that I also enjoy several drinks with good company. And yet, there in my fallible but enduring memory you are:

  • at a party at your house, in front of our whole small group, loudly and callously telling (male student 1) that he was “so interesting because you have no family!”
  • in class, talking about how small and pitiful Ronan Farrow was as a student, and physically miming his then-disability.
  • in front of our whole small group, dropping the fact of (a professor family member’s) suicide as if it was a fun tidbit of industry gossip.
  • in multiple smaller outings with students, speculating publicly about students’ sexualities.
  • in front of our whole small group, when you turned to (female student 1) and said, “(female student 1)! you’re always, like, there!” and the men of the small group laughed–at her–because you ambivalence about her was already clear, and your meaning–that you couldn’t and wouldn’t summon a single more personal thing to say about her–was crystal clear.

and I really could go on and on but to what end. You were the first to say that you like to walk the line socially. But there you were, again an again, leaping over it. Sometimes more cruelly than others. Regularly punching down. Consistently establishing your favorite students, disregarding your least favorites. I wish I could chalk it up to you having had several drinks in one sitting and getting a little sloppy, but many of these comments came sober during class.

And of course there was drinking, which on its own wouldn’t be a problem at all. You’re not the only professor, at law school or undergrad, who I could enjoy drinks with. Bu again, caution and moderation where never your brand. Our small group members would regularly joke about how you had, often at the last minute or late in the evening, “summoned” us to meet you at a bar. And we would go, how could we not? We knew you liked us best when when we were a rapt audience for your repetitive, albethey scandalous, stories. You rewarded those of us who drank with you and who listened to your off-color stories and comments with the most praise and attention. My friend used to joke that I was lucky to be one of the “ChuaPets”. In contrast, you were noticeable disinterested in the students who avoided your act.

Beyond the bullying and drinking, , of course there was the constant emphasis on appearance: repeatedly calling (male student 2) “handsome”, in front of various small group members; (similar allegations which could not be included without revealing a student’s identity); incessantly remarking on your alumnae friends not only in terms of their accomplishments, but in terms of who was a “beauty queen” or a “knockout”; telling me during your party at The Beekman about how my “big (color) 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?”).

And of course, at Mory’s, that night with the women of our small group. You started a conversation about whether the federal judiciary would ever have a #MeToo moment, and you went on to mention that a judge named Kavanaugh had a predilection for good-looking clerks. It was my first time hearing the name of that then-Circuit Court judge, but in my horror I committed it to memory. You said, howeve,r that you weren’t concerned for your daughter, his future clerk, because she would never put up with that sort of beahviour.

I didn’tsleep that night. How could someone I admire, the fearless woman I thought I kenw, believe what you had said? And not do anything about it? Worse yet, perpetuate it? Perhaps, worse still you didn’t see any problem with a federal judge with lifetime tenure preferring clerks who “look like models”. You, a tenured professor at Yale Law School. The very institution that holds itself out as a progressive bastion of elinghtenment. The institution I sacrificed to smuch to apply to, to attned. The very institution taked with teaching me the meaning of equal rights under the law. How couldyou, the person entrusted with that enourmous commitment, really have done that? Or perhaps, just as bad, you didn believe what you said, but you needed a relevant story to dangle in front of us, and you didn’t think or care aoub the consequences?

Weeks after our night at Mory’s (check your inbox, you’ll find all the dates), (female student 2) from our small group shared an article about the allegations against Kozinski with that same group, because of hou apropos it was to our prior conversation. After that, you mentioned in-person that Kozinski’s sexually harassing bahaviour towards female clerks was an open scret, which of course you knew about, but that you did your part simply by steering female candidates in another directions As opposed to actually using your protected status as a tenured professor to warnd all law students aobut what you knew they wer ein for. As opposed to taking a stance that women should ‘t have ot eschew certain career opportunities in order to be safe in the workd place.

Ans I won’t pretend that these memories I’m sharing exit in a vacuum. As this was unfolding, and my perception of you was changing, of course I heard countless more examples from trusted friends about you crossing the line. About your husband crossing the line. About why students and alumni were too afraid to speak out against you. I eventually came to learn about the investigations in to both of you. Of course this all colored my beliefs about you. But I’ve done my best to only address here things that i perceived with my own eyes and ears.

You could, of course, deny all of these things to me. You could, perhaps even honestly, tell me that you don’t remember a single instance, and I might believe you mean it. But it would be futile. I’ve traversed my memory of these moments endlessly and and they cannot be edited. Between us, I can understand it. I probably couldn’t tolerate a world where every hyperbolic, provocative, or insensitive comment of mine was dredged up and splayed out. You know well that I love telling an edgy story at a party to the be center of attention: guilty beyond a doubt.

You could also say that each of these instances I’ve highlighted is insensitive at best, but frankly not a big deal. Certainly not worth destroying the reputation of a person who has worked so hard and and done much good. Certainly no worse than the transgressions of legions of mostly white and male faculty at YLS before and likely after you. And regardless, that these moments should have been the source of a private, interpersonal dispute and not a larger debate. You might think this all amounts to a little bit of “controversy,” which as you’ve recently noted, is insufficient grounds for discipline in your mind.

But that’s all besides the point, because at least in regards to your Kavanaugh comments, you did deny it: publicly, repeatedly, emphatically. I read the articles and I knew they were true. And then I read your response, refuting every allegation. You went on to laud the very man you privately discredited, and you didn’t stop there. You lashed out. You called your students liars. You deflected, suggesting that student reactions were based on your controversial opinions, rather than the substance of your own words and actions. You condemned the student sources for having a political agenda. But it was never students who disparaged Kavanaugh’s clerkship practices. That was you. As I read your forceful denial, almost in an instant, you transformed into a defensive and dishonest stranger. And, perhaps because I never did — never could in good conscience reach out to express unwavering support for you, you never spoke to me again.

Maybe you think that I’m hypersensitive and I won’t hack it in the real world, and much less in The Law. I’ll take the odds, and time will tell. Perhaps you’ve already forwarded this to your lawyer. (I’ve been silent for years because I was afraid of that very outcome). Maybe you think that, to whatever extent a private email can have a political agenda or be a “hit job,” as you’ve recently tweeted, that’s what this is. But I assure you this isn’t that sophisticated. It’s a far more simple and utterly, perhaps even recklessly, unstrategic message. Because from the bottom of my heart, Amy, you gutted me.

It was personal because I had hitched my wagon to your horse. In my eyes, you went from being a person who identified and criticized power structures to being a person who retreated into them. I saw a woman who I once thought was not only good but honest, irreverent, and unrepentant abandon all of these qualities so quickly, to throw students under the bus and protect your already-colorful reputation. It was volatile. Petty. I finally had clarity that your power and position were more important to you than your students and the truth. I was hurt and angry. And truthfully, I feared you.

I confided this cluster of confusion and outrage to one purported ally on the faculty. He, no doubt out of protective instinct for me, privately told me that he believed you to be vindictive and litigious. He cautioned me to be judicious with my disclosures and to consider libel law. Of course you had no control over that. But it happened. And I believed him. And I spiraled.

Up until this point, I had been winning YLS. I got straight H’s. I made it onto Journal and considered a run for EIC. I got interviews and then offers from all eleven firms that I bid during FIP. I was on the board of two student organizations including YLW (and you were the one who told me YLW ran the school). But that was back when I believed that success at YLS and in the law had more to do with merit, and less to do with looks and parties. And if success looked like a year in chambers with a sexist creep with life-tenure, I didn’t want that anyway.

When I lost respect for you, I became incapable of having a close relationship with anyone else on the faculty. I went from thinking I was both fortunate and deserving to be at YLS among the greatest minds, to thinking I was a pawn amid sloppy powerbrokers. I decided never to clerk. It felt impossible, or at least unfair, to apply for clerkships without a letter from my small group professor. But more broadly, I decided never to play the game. Never to need you. Never to put myself in a position where you could comment on me or affect my career in any way. Never to need anyone like you. I stopped gunning. For after graduation, I applied to the one fellowship that required zero faculty recommendations. Happily, I got it, and that’s my life now, and I breathe a little easier these days. I’ve had time to reflect on how fortunate I am that throughout my life, especially as a student at (Undergrad) and an employee at (University) I have had dozens of close male and female faculty mentors, none of whom ever once blurred the line, or made me feel small, or made me question my sanity and decency like you did.

In case I’ve been unclear, allow me to conclude: You’ve asserted that your critics are strangers. But you know that’s not true. I knew you well, and not just because I took your class. You’ve asserted that you’re being singled out among the faculty. But you were my only mentor at YLS, so I’m not interested in or capable of providing a comparative perspective. You’ve asserted that your critics are liars. But you lied. And you know I’m telling the truth, and more to the point, now you know that I’ll stake my reputation on it. You’ve asserted that you’re proud of your record of helping minority students, including women and FGP students. But you can’t count me among them, because you, more than anyone, deflated my confidence and ambition. You’ve asserted that your critics could only possibly be on a witch hunt motivated by politics. But here I am, telling you that I’m writing this message simply because you hurt me. Because when my dreams were big and my confidence was high, you disenchanted me.

I don’t fully know the point of writing this and I won’t pretend to. Maybe it is purely selfish catharsis. Maybe putting words on proverbial paper just convinces me that I don’t have to be afraid of you after all. I don’t know if you wonder or care about your former students, the ones who don’t stay so close, and how they feel about you. Maybe you chalk this up to me being narcissistic for thinking you care, or being disloyal for criticizing you, or just being a pathological shit-stirrer in a desperate cling to relevancy. Maybe there’s even truth in all of that. Or maybe my words and I mean absolutely nothing to you, and that would be understandable too.

But, if ever a part of you has wondered where I went or what I think, here you are. I believe, out of respect for what was once a positive relationship for me, that you should hear it all from me. Do with it what you will.


(YLS Alum)

April 11, 2021

A postscript for those cc’ed: Nothing in this email is a surprise to you. On April 29, 2019 at 9AM, I met with Ellen Cosgrove and told her every single one of these things. I brought my friend (Male Student 3), as moral support and a witness to that meeting, so he can easily confirm this.

/end transcript

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Framing provided to Ms Milan

2 Responses to “Letter from a YLS alum to Amy Chua–transcript”

  1. willaful 05/05/2021 at 6:05 PM #

    Thanks for hosting this. Twitter isn’t a great medium for it. I hope it’ll get more exposure.

    • azteclady 05/05/2021 at 6:08 PM #

      So far it’s been viewed over a thousand times. In the grand scale of things it’s probably barely a blip on the radar, but we do what we can.

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