On May 19, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz became an alumna of her prestigious university and solidified her status as the encapsulation of collegiate rape culture.
When she walked across the stage to become a graduate, all eyes were on President Lee Bollinger. This was his opportunity to extend her the most superficial of gestures, the most basic expression of goodwill and congratulations to her academic achievements.
Sulkowicz, trailed by two friends who aided her in carrying her mattress, strode up to Bollinger to shake his hand, and he refused. He turned away and forced Sulkowicz to pass by unacknowledged, and the symbolism of that demonstration is devastating.
While the sexual assault allegations were in dispute, Sulkowicz has developed a national profile by choosing to advocate on her own behalf in a highly visible, public way: While a student at Columbia, she carried her mattress with her wherever she went as an inescapably tangible reminder both of the tragedy she survived and ?the university’s lack of action against her aggressor.
Sulkowicz says she was sexually assaulted by another student in 2014. She initially chose not to report it. She knew such a process would require her to recount and relive all the ?harrowing details.
However, when Sulkowicz encountered two other classmates with similar accounts regarding the same individual, she felt compelled to participate in their group effort to address an issue clearly rampant ?on campus.
All three women went through Columbia’s administrative channels, and all three allegations were denied. The university found their assailant not guilty, and the three students — along with who knows how many others — were forced to live in fear in their own community beneath the governance of a system that cared nothing for their safety.
In response, Sulkowicz has carried her mattress with her everywhere for nearly a year to raise awareness about the rape culture cavalierly perpetuated by Columbia’s administration and gained a huge amount of attention throughout ?the nation.
A Columbia spokesperson later claimed Sulkowicz “charged past” Bollinger and did not give him the chance to finish getting a drink of water, which is what he was allegedly doing when he turned his back on her. However, as the singular leader of a prestigious university, it is ridiculous to assert that Bollinger lacked the wherewithal to notice Sulkowicz’s approach and grasp the significance of that moment.
Bollinger’s decision to snub Sulkowicz was almost certainly politically motivated. Paul Nungesser, the alleged assailant, recently sued Bollinger and Columbia for defamation of character and failure to address her “harassment,” so he likely chose to avoid adding fuel to the defamation lawsuit by publicly validating her with a handshake.
The problem is that validation is exactly what Sulkowicz and her fellow survivors require and deserve. Acknowledgement of their experience, support from the institutions that claim to have their best interests at heart and ?justice through the theoretically protective frameworks around them are among the most basic of their rights, as Columbia students and as ?human beings.
But Bollinger chose to deny Sulkowicz her humanity. He demonstrated a total disapproval of her right to the respect and care her personhood deserves and firmly placed himself on the side of the perpetrators of crimes of negligence.
The moment Bollinger faked a drink of water to avoid deigning a student who turned to him for help with a handshake, he reminded those working to end the threat of sexual assault on college campuses that a long road still lies ahead.
The issue is persisting even in ivy-covered halls. It bears reiterating that proponents of safety and justice face antagonists not criminal, but criminally negligent.
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