Columbia settles sex-discrimination suit rather than go to the mattresses

The first time Paul Nungesser filed a lawsuit over the damage to his reputation from Columbia University’s handling of sexual-assault allegations, the school managed to get it tossed out of court. The second lawsuit filed by Nungesser, based on sex-based discrimination over his male gender even after having been exonerated, apparently hit closer to the mark. Columbia announced that it has settled the suit — and says it will now change its policies to prevent it from happening again:


Nungesser’s suit charged that the University failed to protect him from—and even encouraged—sustained protest by Sulkowicz, which Nungesser initially argued was a violation of Title IX.

The University announced that it had settled the suit—for which Nungesser submitted a new complaint after his initial one was dismissed last year—in a conciliatory statement sent to Spectator Thursday.

The statement reaffirmed that Columbia’s investigation had found Nungesser not responsible and expressed regret that his time after the investigation was “very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience.”

The statement also said the University will reform its gender-based misconduct policies to make sure all students, “accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are found not responsible,” are treated with “respect.”

It’s worth noting that this statement goes a little beyond the usual corporate “we admit nothing but just want to move on” message. As reported by the school’s newspaper, Columbia offers some recognition of fault in this complaint, suggesting that it has some responsibility for the damage done to Nungesser’s reputation from Emma Sulkowicz’ bizarre protest stunts and the national media attention it received. The promise to change its policies are the most significant of these admissions, which implies that the existing policies at the time contributed significantly to the damage.


In filing the lawsuit last year, Nungesser said that was precisely what he wanted:

The new, 100-page complaint again alleges the school participated in gender-based harassment, sexual harassment and gender-based misconduct against Nungesser that “was severe, pervasive and objectively offensive and that deprived Plaintiff Paul Nungesser of educational opportunities.”

“I sincerely hope that Judge Woods allows my case to move on to trial,” Nungesser tellsNewsweek via email on Monday. “While I personally would like to put this case behind me, I also think this complaint raises some fundamental questions that our society deserves answers to.” Those questions, he says, include whether male and female students have the same rights, and whether “a false accusation [is] all it takes to lose any right to a normal life and a normal college experience.”

Nungesser and his legal team added a little sauce for the goose approach to their amended complaint too:

The new complaint also alleges that Columbia’s policies and practices “perpetuate the stereotype of the sex-driven male,” which violates Title IX. For example, the complaint says, Columbia’s policies include no examples of sexual violence involving a male victim and a female perpetrator, only female victims and male perpetrators, or gender-neutral victims and perpetrators. Also, it says, all videos shown during a mandatory sexual respect program for students focused on “violence against women” and not gender-based violence more generally. Further, the complaint alleges, the school’s sexual violence policies focus only on penetration as opposed to someone being “made to penetrate.”

“Columbia’s institutional practice is largely based on the stereotype of the active, voracious, aggressive male and the passive, restrained, non-aggressive woman,” the complaint says, “which is sex-based stereotyping and overgeneralization that is discriminatory and a clear violation of Title IX.”


Why did it take more than a year for Columbia to decide not to “go to the mattresses” on this lawsuit as it had the earlier one? Judge Gregory Woods had signaled that he would consider this kind of complaint as opposed to the legal argument in the first lawsuit, which means that this had a better chance of going to trial. They may have settled it just on that basis alone, but that would have likely resulted in a “no admission” public statement. This outcome makes it look like Columbia knew they were in the wrong all along, and that Nungesser’s second shot at publicly humiliating the school was much more likely to succeed.

Perhaps this will serve as a warning to other colleges and universities that conduct kangaroo courts on Title IX issues. The real problem, though, are the federal guidances and policies that force these schools to put on show trials without any due process or protections for the accused in order to keep qualifying for funding. The Trump administration has an opportunity to correct that, although they also need to make sure they’re not dismissing the issue of sexual assault altogether. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had to do some repair work on her department’s credibility this week on that score:


One day after her agency’s civil rights chief apologized for joking that most campus rape claims amount to two young people who are “both drunk,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the department should more equally weigh the claims of assault victims and the due-process rights of the accused.

“All their stories are important,” said DeVos, speaking to reporters moments after she met with both victims and a handful of those who say they have been wrongly accused.

“No student should be the victim of sexual assault,” she said. “No student should feel unsafe. No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel that the scales are tipped against him or her. We need to get this right.”

Indeed we do — and that means using American due-process protections no matter what the venue or context may be. And for most of these cases, it means taking them out of the hands of school administrators, and putting them into the hands of law enforcement — where they belong.

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