NEW YORK — Knit cap pulled down over his ears, shoulders hunched against the biting wind, Paul Nungesser was almost indistinguishable from the dozen or so other students traversing the steps of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library one menacing December day. But a few of those students recognized him anyway, flicking their eyes up for a discreet peek before hurrying on to the last classes of the semester.
He has gotten used to former friends crossing the street to avoid him. He has even gotten used to being denounced as a rapist on fliers and in a rally in the university’s quadrangle. Although his name is not widely known beyond the Morningside Heights campus, Nungesser is one of America’s most notorious college students. His reputation precedes him.
His notoriety is the result of a campaign by Emma Sulkowicz, a fellow student who says Nungesser raped her in her dorm room two years ago. Columbia cleared him of responsibility in that case, as well as in two others that students brought against him. Outraged, Sulkowicz began carrying a 50-pound mattress wherever she went on campus, to suggest the painful burden she continues to bear. She has vowed to keep at it until he leaves the school.
Her story has been so compelling, and “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” — which doubles as her senior thesis for the visual arts department — so affecting, that large numbers of Columbia students have rallied around her. She has been honored with national awards. In October, students at more than 100 colleges carried their own mattresses (or pillows) to call attention to the problem of campus sexual assault.
Through all of it, Nungesser has hovered in the background like a specter. His name has been plastered on campus bathrooms and published in easily searchable articles. His face is visible online, too, in photos that detractors have posted as warnings to strangers.
Until now he has made no public statement. With graduation only a semester away, however, and his reputation, he says, all but demolished, he has decided to speak.
He says that he is innocent and that the same university that found him “not responsible” has now abdicated its own responsibility, letting mob justice overrule its official procedures. The mattress project is not an act of free expression, he adds; it is an act of bullying, a very public, very personal, and very painful attack designed to hound him out of Columbia. And it is being conducted with the university’s active support.
“There is a member of the faculty that is supervising this,” he said. “This is part of her graduation requirement.”
Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, while declining to address the matter directly, offered a general statement: “The law and principles of academic freedom allow students to express themselves on issues of public debate; at the same time, our legal and ethical responsibility is to be fair and impartial in protecting the rights and accommodating the concerns of all students in these matters.”
Three Women File Complaints
Sulkowicz says that in August 2012, during an otherwise consensual encounter, Nungesser hit her, pinned her down and, despite her protests, raped her. Another woman accused him of following her up the stairs at a party for the literary society they both belonged to and groping her until she pushed him off. A third woman accused him of multiple incidents of “intimate partner violence” — emotional abuse and nonconsensual sex during a monthslong relationship.
Sexual assault cases can sometimes come down to a matter of perspective, but Nungesser’s accusers say there can be no ambiguity about what he did.
“It’s not safe for him to be on this campus,” Sulkowicz said this month. The women he assaulted “are forever emotionally scarred and fragile because of what he’s done to them. And me.”
Nungesser is similarly absolute.
“People were like, maybe this is a misunderstanding,” he said of Sulkowicz’s charges. “But the matter of the fact is it’s not a misunderstanding.” He insists they had consensual sex. “What was alleged was the most violent rape, and that did not happen.”
As for groping, he says he attended the party but never went upstairs. And intimate partner violence?
“Outside of a forced marriage or kidnapping, it just seems very hard to believe that a person would over and over again put themselves in a situation where they could expect this kind of behavior to occur.”
False reports of rape are rare, many experts say, and the federal Department of Education is investigating scores of colleges for possibly violating federal rules in handling the complaints that are filed.
Nungesser said the charges against him, all filed within days of one another, were the result of collusion. The three women said in interviews with The New York Times that they decided to take action when they heard about one another’s experiences.
The groping case was initially decided against him, with a largely symbolic punishment of “disciplinary probation,” but he appealed. By the time the case was heard again his accuser had graduated and was unable, she said, to participate in the process. The decision was overturned. The university dropped the intimate partner violence charge after that accuser, saying she was exhausted by the barrage of questions, stopped answering emails over summer vacation. And in Sulkowicz’s case, the hearing panel found that there was not enough evidence. Her request for an appeal was denied.
To Nungesser’s accusers, the refusal to punish him in any way — as well as the myriad procedural errors, delays, contradictions and humiliations, both small and large, to which the women said they were subjected — are proof that the system was biased against them. If three separate complaints against the same man could not persuade the hearing panels, how could anyone believe that justice was served?
“To me he seems like a predator who attacks women, who does not ask for consent and does not know the line,” said the student who accused Nungesser of groping her, and who asked not to be publicly identified, as did the third accuser.
To Nungesser, the fact that campus hearings have a lower burden of proof than criminal trials and that he was not allowed to bring up communications between himself and Sulkowicz after the night in question, were proof that the process was biased against him. If despite those odds, the hearings resolved in his favor, how could anyone doubt that justice was served?
His Whereabouts Are Noted
Speaking carefully, with a slightly formal bearing and an accent so faint that it can be hard to place, Nungesser, who is from Germany, says he believes sexual assault is an important cause for concern.
“My mother raised me as a feminist,” he says, well aware of how those words will strike some people, “and I’m someone who would like to think of myself as being supportive of equal rights for women.”
Most of his Columbia friends have dropped him along the way, either when the charges were first filed or when Sulkowicz went to the police last year and the Columbia Spectator made the decision to publish his name. (Sulkowicz did not press criminal charges, a lengthy process that she said would be too draining, but she and several other women filed gender discrimination complaints against Columbia with the U.S. Department of Education.)
Nungesser, an architecture major, spent the spring semester abroad, where he started dating a woman he is still involved with today. During that time, Sulkowicz went public with her story, appeared at a news conference with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and on the front page of The Times, and helped inspire a national movement.
He says he approached Columbia’s administration to see if, under the circumstances, it might make more sense for him to spend his senior year in a study abroad program. But the application deadline had already passed, and his request for a waiver was denied.
Back in Morningside Heights, his actions are closely noted. On the National Day of Action, when students brought their mattresses out to the quad, a few people also brought them to one of Nungesser’s classes. Someone there took his picture as he entered, he said; another classmate blogged about it. On another occasion, when he went to a bar with a friend, that fact made its way into a television news report on Sulkowicz’s project.
Nungesser’s parents work in modest jobs, and he says he would never have been able to afford Columbia had he not been awarded scholarships. But people assume he is just another rich foreign student, he says, whose family uses its wealth to buy influence.
Nungesser has consulted a lawyer, but said he is not currently pursuing any legal action. His parents have written the university many times to decry a situation that they say “developed from a complete shock to an enduring nightmare for him and for us.”
Sulkowicz’s parents have also been active in her defense, publishing an open letter to Bollinger, the president.
In an interview, her mother, Sandra Leong, said the university left Nungesser in an untenable position. Regarding a hearing process in which so many Columbia students appear to have lost faith, Leong, who lives in Manhattan said, “I think by sweeping it under the rug they’ve subjected him to a very painful, scarring experience. I don’t see it as Emma’s fault because she just had to do what she had to do, but I do see it as the school’s fault.”
“He probably also is holding on for dear life because it’s a free education,” she added. “But ostracism is also horrible. It’s just a debacle.”
Columbia Changes Procedures
Columbia’s procedures for investigating sexual assault allegations have changed considerably since Nungesser and Sulkowicz’s case was decided. Accusers and defendants are now each allowed to bring a lawyer, for example; if they do not have one, Columbia is one of the only colleges in the country that will provide one.
But one fundamental goal of the process remains the same, says Suzanne B. Goldberg, a special adviser to the university’s president on sexual assault prevention and response. Unlike criminal trials, she explained, university hearings are designed to be educational experiences.
“I think that any university students who engage with a disciplinary process on these issues learn a lot,” she said.
Nungesser says he has learned that the university will abandon its own convictions if it is politically expedient.
Sulkowicz, whose high profile has made her the target of innumerable online attacks, says she has learned that women’s safety is expendable. For her and others, Nungesser’s continued presence is a daily affront.
Having avoided contact with each other for two years, the two adversaries are scheduled to graduate in the same ceremony in May. Sulkowicz said she may bring her mattress up on stage and drop it right there. Nungesser is ambivalent about the day, wary of further displays but eager to move on to a place where this episode does not define him. He says he does not know where that will be.