Columbia University has reached a settlement with former student Paul Nungesser following the aftermath of a sexual assault case that brought Columbia to the forefront of a national conversation about rape on college campuses. Nungesser first filed a lawsuit against the university in 2015 on the grounds that it practiced gender-based discrimination by giving the former student who accused him, Emma Sulkowicz, academic credit and support for her famous performance art project that served as her senior thesis.
In her senior thesis—“Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)”—first launched in 2014, Sulkowicz carried a 50-pound mattress around campus in protest of her accused rapist’s presence on campus after a university investigation of her sexual assault complaint found him not responsible. A critique of the university’s handling of the case, Sulkowicz even carried the mattress onstage at her (and Nungesser’s) 2015 graduation with the help of several friends and was met with the applause and support of her peers. The performance art project received widespread media coverage and support from college campuses across the country. Sulkowicz’s intention was to show to the world that her school, amongst many others, does not thoroughly investigate nor do they pay enough attention to sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape cases on their campus.
Nungesser claimed in his lawsuit that he faced an “outrageous display of harassment and defamation,” accusing Columbia of contributing to the harassment he experienced following the case’s visibility. The German international student said he was labeled an assaulter on bathroom walls, criticized in an art exhibition of Sulkowicz’s prints on top of a New York Times article about him and shunned by his peers.
His initial 2015 lawsuit cited gender-based discrimination as the cause of Columbia’s tolerance of this treatment and claimed that its crediting of Sulkowicz’s thesis encouraged its continuation. According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, the suit was dismissed in 2016 because “Columbia had argued that it was not obligated to censor Sulkowicz’s speech or the subject matter of her art thesis, and that allowing her performance did not constitute gender discrimination.” Nungesser refiled the suit, whose 2017 dismissal he appealed, claiming that Columbia had violated Title IX by allowing Sulkowicz to protest, and that the university’s policies “perpetuate the stereotype of the sex-driven male,” a claim that disregards the reality that sexual assault allegations are very rarely false and that women on college campuses across the country experience epidemic rates of sexual violence.
Following news of the settlement, Columbia released a statement announcing that, after Nungesser had been cleared of responsibility in the university 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.”
In response to the statement, No Red Tape, the anti-sexual violence group who helped organize rallies and protests in support of Sulkowicz, told Ms., “We are disturbed Columbia felt compelled to publicly compliment the character of (and apologize to) an alleged serial rapist, especially when Columbia has never made an effort to make amends to survivors of campus violence.”
At the heart of these cases, from Emma Sulkowicz’s initial report in 2013 to Columbia’s settlement, lies the debate over the responsibilities of colleges and universities in handling sexual assault. Although, according to the Sulkowicz’s complaint, Nungesser raped Sulkowicz when both were sophomores in the autumn of 2012, Sulkowicz only felt emboldened to report the incident in April 2013 after learning that two other women had been assaulted by Nungesser. The university ultimately found him not “responsible”—the term that universities use instead of “guilty”—in all three cases. Although Sulkowicz was allowed to carry out her thesis, Columbia has thus far stood by its findings.
Sulkowicz’s senior thesis took root in protesting the university’s decision and handling of the case itself, including its failure to take into consideration the reports already filed against Nungesser and the inappropriate questions she was asked by administrators during the hearing.
In April of 2014, 23 Columbia students filed federal complaints against Columbia for its treatment of sexual assault cases and survivors. After an illuminating two-part series was published in Columbia’s news website Bwog examining the lack of transparency in the university’s sexual assault policies, the Carrying the Weight Together movement was created to stand in solidarity with Sulkowicz. During a time under President Obama when initiatives had been launched to hold universities accountable for the handling of sexual assault, Columbia and Sulkowicz’s senior thesis became a centerpiece of this national dialogue.
According to Newsweek, advocates for victims of sexual assault are worried that schools will now begin to arbitrate cases based on who they believe is more likely to take legal action against them. Many college campuses around the country have been known to downplay the numbers of sexual assaults that occur on their campus each year in attempt to keep their prestige and name clear of any circumstances that could turn away prospective students.
Columbia’s settlement was brokered on the same day that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with alleged rapists as well as “men’s rights activist” groups to discuss sexual assault policies on campus, and it comes after a string of comments from DeVos that signal an intention to water down current protections for survivors of sexual assault on campus under Title IX. Last week, a group of 20 attorney generals pushed back on that intention in a letter to the Secretary demanding that the current guidelines under Title IX stay intact, and victims rights stay protected.
“Despite our concerns, we are committed to working collaboratively with your Department to address the problem of sexual assault on America’s college campuses,” the letter reads, “but any effort in this area must be deliberate and allow for meaningful input from all stakeholders, and it must focus on the ultimate goal of ensuring that all students are protected from discrimination, including sexual harassment, assault, stalking and domestic violence, under Title IX.”