As college seniors across the country donned graduation robes and balanced mortarboards on their heads, one carried a baby-blue mattress across the stage and dropped its weight for the first time. As Emma Sulkowicz’s senior art thesis – a poignant performance piece based on her sexual assault on the Columbia campus – draws to a close, so does her campaign against sexual violence at the college. But her individual experiences will not fade from the collective consciousness of students across the country; social media is already booming with praise and support for the newly graduated senior and added vilification of Sulkowicz’s alleged rapist, who walked across the stage minutes before she did.
Perhaps an unfitting, and somewhat unexpected, end to her performance came when President Lee Bollinger refused to shake Sulkowicz’s hand after she walked across the stage. An aide told The New York Times that the mattress, which Sulkowicz had carried on stage, had “been between” the two, and that “no snub was intended”. Regardless, President Bollinger’s refusal to shake his student’s hand – he had developed an intense interest in his chair when Sulkowicz came up to him – is representative of his institution’s continued reluctance to accept the senior’s experiences. Even online, the flood of congratulatory press articles and Facebook posts are almost counterbalanced by renewed accusations against her unwonted ‘celebrity’ and purported elevation of her scarring experience, as well as a rage-inducing propensity to ‘give the guy a break’.
Paul Nungesser, who was the silent subject of Sulkowicz’s yearlong performance piece, recently filed a lawsuit against Columbia stating that he had been the subject of an administrative and school-wide harassment campaign. It does seem wonderfully ironic that the student an institution sought to protect is now turning against it: Nungesser’s attorneys have filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit alleging that the college allowed Sulkowicz to receive course credit for her ‘Mattress Project’. Nungesser, a German student who had two other sexual misconduct cases filed against him at the school, has now come to represent the ‘men who some say are unjustly accused’ described in a Newsweek article from April of this year reports. His complaints seem to hold water for some: after the Rolling Stone journalism debacle, the magazine retracted a story about an alleged gang rape in a UVA fraternity house after Virginia police said there was no evidence to support the allegations.
In a mind-numbing stroke of paradox, Nungesser’s suit has been filed under Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments Act of 1972 — the same law that allowed Sulkowicz to file her sexual assault complaint in the first place. It is also the same law that, in the institution’s very own words, “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities…Columbia, Barnard College, and Teachers College have an obligation under this law to investigate and respond to reports of gender-based misconduct”. That Columbia allowed both Nungesser and Sulkowicz to share the same stage by the end of the year is just about the final twist in a policy failure that is wreaking havoc on the school’s reputation. And the college’s attempts at recouping from its administrative disaster have been few and far between.
Commencement may have been the last day of Sulkowicz’s performance, but it will be a while until Columbia’s administration lives down their failure to address her assault case. New ‘sexual respect’ initiatives have been put in place, asking students to participate in workshops and art projects that discuss the very topics that most institutions have historically silenced. But students involved in the initiative thus far have called the video-watching and survey-taking of the course “little more than eighth grade level homework assignments”, an Inside Higher Ed news article reported in February. On-campus student groups like No Red Tape, whose picture of a ‘Rape Happens Here’ projection atop Columbia’s library building went viral earlier this year, are doing more for increasing debate on sexual respect with their blunt, consciousness-raising tactics than a controversy-ridden, assault-silencing administration ever could.
Four other graduates helped Emma Sulkowicz as she carried her mattress on Class Day for the final time. She still followed her rules: carry the weight until her assaulter leaves campus, and only accept the help of others if they offer it. She was asked thrice by school officials to leave the mattress behind before walking onstage, but refused each time. When asked what she would do with the mattress after commencement, Sulkowicz suggested giving it to a museum, rather than simply discarding it. Perhaps there is hope that Sulkowicz’s mattress will become a reminder of a bygone time, and it will take less than a performance piece for America’s schools to address on-campus sexual violence in the future.