Columbia University settles with student accused of sexual assault

Story highlights

  • Student's lawyer: "He's worried every time he gives his name out"
  • Victims rights group warns against treating perpetrators like victims

(CNN)Columbia University has settled a lawsuit filed by a student over its handling of a sexual assault allegation.

A university investigation in 2013 found Paul Nungesser, an international student from Germany, not responsible of sexual misconduct stemming from allegations by fellow sophomore Emma Sulkowicz. CNN does not usually name individuals in sexual assault cases, but in this instance, both parties have spoken publicly about their experience.
Despite the finding, Nungesser said he was harassed and ostracized by Sulkowicz and her supporters. To protest the outcome of the university investigation, Sulkowicz carried a mattress around campus in a performance piece called "Carry that Weight" that drew worldwide attention. Nungesser was never charged with a crime and denies the allegations, saying they continue to dog his efforts to pursue a career as a filmmaker.
    Nungesser sued the school in 2015, alleging his right to an education free of gender-based discrimination was violated. He took aim at university President Lee Bollinger and Sulkowicz's visual arts professor who gave her credit for the performance as part of her senior thesis.
    Emma Sulkowicz's protest doubled as her senior thesis project.
    The lawsuit was dismissed in 2016 on the grounds that his claims did not constitute sex-based discrimination. He refiled the lawsuit and it was dismissed in 2017, a decision he appealed. While the appeal was pending his lawyer said he began talking to Columbia about a possible resolution.
    "He's not sure if he can keep his name. He's worried every time he gives his name out, whether it is for a job or on a date," Nungesser's lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg told CNN. "He is worried that no matter what he accomplishes professionally or otherwise that this is going to create a problem."
    With the confidential settlement, Miltenberg said Nungesser got what he had long sought from Columbia.
    It "gives Paul a chance to go on with his life and recover from the false accusation against him," his lawyer said in a statement. "We hope that the resolution of the case also ensures that no student will ever have to endure what Paul went through after he was exonerated."
    The school said it stands by its finding, reached after "a diligent and thorough investigation," that he was found not responsible for any misconduct. Nungesser graduated in 2015 from Columbia in good standing and is currently enrolled in film school in Germany.
    "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," the school said in a statement.
    "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. "
    The controversy has become yet another footnote in the ongoing debate over university investigations, known as Title IX investigations for the federal civil rights law that forbids gender-based harassment. It's an issue that new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has prioritized in "listening sessions" across the country, pitting due process rights of the accused against concerns for survivors' safety and well-being while investigations are pending.
    The harassment continued after the investigation concluded, Nungesser said in his lawsuit, when Sulkowicz turned "her personal vendetta" into a senior thesis. She brought the mattress to her graduation and walked across the stage with it. Meanwhile, Nungesser's name appeared on a "rapist list" in Columbia bathrooms, the complaint said.
    "President Bollinger showed no public regard for a student in Paul, who was being victimized by Emma's campaign of false charges of criminal conduct that the University had rightly determined lacked any substance. President Bollinger thus displayed a contemptible moral cowardice in bowing down to the witch hunt against an innocent student instead of standing up for the truth and taking appropriate steps to protect Paul from gender-based harassment," the lawsuit said.
    "Sulkowicz's harassment campaign could not possibly have been as widespread and as pervasive without Columbia University's actions and inactions," the lawsuit added.
    Sulkowicz declined to comment on the settlement. In a 2015 email she told CNN: "It's ridiculous that he would read it as a 'bullying strategy,' especially given his continued public attempts to smear my reputation, when really it's just an artistic expression of the personal trauma I've experienced at Columbia."
    She continued, "if artists are not allowed to make art that reflects on our experiences, then how are we to heal?"
    In response to Columbia's statement, victims' rights group End Rape on Campus said it stood by Sulkowicz and criticized the school.
    "Broadly speaking, treating perpetrators of sexual assault as victims is not only uneducated, it is irresponsible and harmful," said Annie Clark, executive director of End Rape on Campus.
    "Columbia's statement is not surprising given our current culture, however; its words are reminiscent of institutions and media outlets who continue to claim that perpetrators' lives are irrevocably damaged by such allegations."