Columbia President Refuses To Shake Rape Survivor’s Hand At Graduation

Student known for carrying a mattress to protest the university's handling of her sexual assault case gets snubbed by the president during graduation.

Emma Sulkowicz

Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz known for her controversial senior thesis project, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), in which she carried a mattress to protest the university’s handling of her sexual assault case walked across stage at her graduation Tuesday with the mattress by her side.

The project required Sulkowicz to carry a mattress similar to the one she was raped on around campus until her alleged rapist was expelled, a project she noted in a video interview last September “could potentially take a day, or it could go on until I graduate.” The piece and Sulkowicz herself became an icon for the fight against campus sexual assault.

As classmates applauded Sulkowicz’s brave decision to carry her mattress across stage, not everyone at the ceremony was pleased.

When Sulkowicz stepped onto the stage, Columbia president, Lee Bollinger, refused to acknowledge her.

As the New York Times writes,

As Ms. Sulkowicz and her friends ascended the stage, Mr. Bollinger, who had been shaking the students’ hands, turned his back and leaned down as though to pick something up from his seat. Ms. Sulkowicz leaned over the mattress, trying to catch his eye, then straightened up and kept walking, shrugging with her free hand. ... 

“I even tried to smile at him or look him in the eye, and he completely turned away,” she said later. “So that was surprising, because I thought he was supposed to shake all of our hands.”

The university defended Bollinger’s actions by saying, “the mattress had been between Ms. Sulkowicz and Mr. Bollinger and that no snub was intended."

Sulkowicz alleges she was sexually assaulted by another student, Paul Nungesser, in 2012 and filed a complaint against her alleged attacker in 2013 but he was found “not responsible” by the university. She then followed up with a complaint to the New York Police Department and filed a Title IX complaint in 2014.  Nungesser has filed a lawsuit against the university saying he was harassed and "suffered in a hostile education environment" because the university allowed Sulkowicz to carry the mattress. Nungesser has been accused by three women of sexual assault, but the university found him not guilty in all three cases. 

Bollinger’s shun (whether inadvertent or not) acutely represents the harsh dichotomy between rape survivors and universities, that continues to be at play despite crackdowns on colleges’ handling of sexual assault. Rape survivors are coming forward with their stories but instead of met with solidarity and help are consistently dismissed by universities.

Read more: Guns on Campus Will Not Solve Sexual Assault

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