As it happened, I was on the phone with Paul Nungesser’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, when the Columbia Spectator got the story. This was a critical condition of the settlement, that Columbia University be the party to break the news in its own way, but once done, it was anybody’s game. For Columbia, the public relations piece was more important than any other, negotiating every vowel and comma of the statement to be publicly released. This is what they finally agreed upon:
Paul Nungesser and Columbia University have agreed to settle the lawsuit he filed in 2015.
While Paul was a student at Columbia, he was accused of sexual misconduct. In November 2013, after a diligent and thorough investigation, Paul was found not responsible for any misconduct. Columbia University stands by that finding.
In 2015, Paul graduated from Columbia in good standing as a distinguished John Jay Scholar. John Jay Scholars, like Paul, are recognized for their remarkable academic and personal achievements, dynamism, intellectual curiosity, and original thinking. Paul is currently enrolled at an internationally recognized film school and has launched a career as a filmmaker.
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.
To the extent this provided an apology from Columbia for its failure to protect Paul, a young man who was turned into the poster boy for a rape that never happened, while enabling his false accuser, Emma Sulkowicz, better known as Mattress Girl, to bask in the glory of her “heroic” performance art at his expense, it was flagrantly inadequate.
Nungesser was at the center of a gender-based misconduct investigation after Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, accused him of assault in 2012. He was later found not guilty by a University investigation.
Sulkowicz protested that finding in her senior art thesis, “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” in which she carried a mattress with her at all times in a critique of the University’s decision not to discipline Nungesser. The thesis made national headlines, and Sulkowicz spearheaded a national student-led push for a reformed gender-based misconduct process.
As odd a choice of faux heroine for an offense that never happened as could be, yet with Columbia’s blessing and approval. So what if this came at Paul Nungesser’s expense, as Columbia basked in the reflected glory of a lie? For the brief moment when this “push” gave Columbia the gloss of gender sensitivity, it adored its press.
While Columbia “stands by [its] finding” that Paul engaged in no misconduct, the most it would offer in apology for sacrificing this concededly innocent young man was that the misery Columbia allowed Mattress Girl to inflict on him was not what it “would want any of its students to experience.” Missing is the answer to the obvious question, then why did Columbia enable, if not encourage, the harm perpetrated on an innocent young man?
But as Andrew told me, Paul and his family were very satisfied with the financial terms of the settlement. Settlements typically trade off the financial aspect with the public relations piece, and Columbia was far more concerned with appearances. While the terms of the settlement are confidential, it seemed abundantly clear that Columbia was far more willing to pay Paul Nungesser than to provide a real apology for the fact that it was complicit in harming a young man to curry national favor with women for an offense they knew never happened.
Despite the inadequacy of the admission of guilt by Columbia, and the apology for Columbia denying Paul Nungesser’s rights under Title IX to enjoy the benefits of his education, the Nungesser’s found the terms of the settlement so favorable otherwise that it was in their best interest to accept it and forego the opportunity to pursue the cause of action against the University to show that males, as well as females, are entitled to protection against discrimination under Title IX.
As noted in the public statement, despite all that Columbia and Mattress Girl did to try to ruin Paul Nungesser’s life at Columbia, he graduated as a John Jay Scholar and is pursuing a career in film. Ironically, Sulkowicz also sought to perpetuate her twisted moment of fame in film as well.
For Andrew Miiltenberg, the settlement was the proper course to best serve the interests of his client. Paul Nungesser can move forward in his life, now with the financial security funded by students’ tuition. Unfortunately, it means that the gravamen of the suit against Columbia, that Title IX precludes universities from sacrificing the lives of its male students in furtherance of flagrant discrimination in favor of women who raise false accusations of rape and sexual assault, will remain unresolved. But the client comes first.
As for Columbia, the painfully crafted statement fails to conceal the hypocrisy and harm it deliberately allowed to happen, right up to the moment Sulkowicz carried her mattress on stage at graduation, the last stab at Paul, while Columbia did nothing to stop it, knowing full well that this was the final scene in its public relations campaign. Future students at Columbia better love that mattress and the false claims it represents, as they paid for it dearly. Then again, we all did.