Columbia University Settles With Student Cast As a Rapist In Fellow Student’s Mattress Art Project

Paul Nungesser in 2014. He accused Columbia University of enabling a harassment campaign by a fellow student who had accused him of rape. A university disciplinary panel cleared him in 2013 of responsibility in the case. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

It was a performance art piece that became famous: A woman who felt that Columbia University had mishandled her charge of rape against a fellow student turned that anger into her senior arts thesis, a yearlong project in which she carried a 50-pound mattress whenever she was on the Morningside Heights campus.

The woman, Emma Sulkowicz, won national acclaim and was largely embraced by her fellow students, who often helped her carry her burden, which she even brought to a graduation ceremony in May 2015.

The accused man, Paul Nungesser, who was cleared of responsibility in the case by a university disciplinary panel, found himself alternately hounded and ostracized, and condemned at a campus rally and on fliers posted around campus. A month before he and Ms. Sulkowicz received their degrees, he sued Columbia, accusing it of supporting what he called an “outrageous display of harassment and defamation” by giving Ms. Sulkowicz academic credit for her project.

Columbia said late this week that it had reached a settlement with Mr. Nungesser, the terms of which it did not disclose. But the university said in a statement: “Columbia recognizes that after the conclusion of the investigation, Paul’s remaining time at Columbia became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience. Columbia will continue to review and update its policies toward ensuring that every student — accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are found not responsible — is treated respectfully and as a full member of the Columbia community.”

Mr. Nungesser’s lawyer, Andrew T. Miltenberg, said it had been important to Mr. Nungesser and his parents that Columbia “take some steps to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again, that this type of experience wouldn’t be suffered by someone else.” Of the settlement, Mr. Miltenberg said: “It’s as reasonable of an ending as you can have under these circumstances. Paul still has to live with this, and I suspect he will for a long time.”

Ms. Sulkowicz did not respond to a request for comment.

The news of the settlement comes as the Trump administration is revisiting policies on campus sexual assault that the federal Department of Education put in place under President Barack Obama. The policies led the government to investigate many universities and colleges, including Columbia, over their handling of sexual assault cases under the federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination by any school that receives federal funding.

On Thursday, Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, met with women who said they had been assaulted, with students who had been accused and their families, with higher education officials, and with advocates on both sides of the issue. After the meetings, Ms. DeVos said, “there are lives that have been ruined and lives that are lost in the process,” referring to students accused of assault.

But, she said, “We can’t go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug.”

Advocates for sexual assault victims expressed some concern on Friday about the settlement of Mr. Nungesser’s suit.

“I hope that schools don’t interpret this as a sign that they should be cracking down on student activism,” said Dana Bolger, a founder of the organization Know Your IX, which is focused on ending sexual violence on college campuses.

She added, “Especially now as we see some retrenchment from the current administration, it’s more important than ever that student speech is allowed to thrive on campuses.”

Annie E. Clark, the executive director of the group End Rape on Campus, said she was disappointed that Columbia was not more concerned about victims of assaults and that it had not said it was “committed to the process on all sides and that they would support survivors, as well, but we did not see that.”

Cynthia Garrett, a co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality, which argues that current procedures tilt too heavily in the direction of the accusers, said that the settlement did not make up for what Mr. Nungesser had endured.

“I don’t think it will ever compensate him for the loss of that college experience that he deserved because he was innocent,” she said.

Click here for more.

SOURCE: The New York Times – Kate Taylor