Columbia President Refuses to Shake Emma Sulkowicz’s Hand at Graduation Ceremony

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Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Since coming forward with her story last year, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz has become an outspoken figure in the fight against campus sexual assault. Her Carry That Weight mattress project has served as the centerpiece of countless news stories about universities' mishandling of rape cases, and she even attended the State of the Union as the guest of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

On Tuesday, Sulkowicz culminated her controversial senior thesis project by attending a graduation ceremony called Class Day with her mattress in tow. But according to a report from the Times, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger appeared uninterested in even acknowledging her presence.

According to the Times:

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.”

A video of the event provided to the Cut by Columbia University shows Bollinger appearing to turn away to grab a bottle of water from his seat as soon as Sulkowicz's name is called. As she and four other students approach him with the mattress in tow, he turns around to put the water bottle back. He then pivots and appears to say something to the students helping Sulkowicz carry the mattress.

A spokesperson for Columbia denied the move was on purpose, telling the Times that the "the mattress had been between Ms. Sulkowicz and Mr. Bollinger and that no snub was intended." They also called the Times story into question in a statement sent to the Cut:

The Times story about Columbia College Class Day reflects a highly selective and strained interpretation of actual events.  President Bollinger participated in the Class Day ceremony, as he does every year, to honor all graduating students.  As thousands of people saw in person and video of the event illustrates, the students who chose to carry a mattress in their hands marched right past Dean Valentini  and President Bollinger rather than pausing for traditional handshakes with either the College Dean or University President.  That is their right, but the idea that there was any intended “snub” is incorrect and does not ring true to anyone who knows President Bollinger and his graciousness.

Bollinger and the university were recently sued by Sulkowicz's alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser, who accused them of acting as "a silent bystander and then turned into an active supporter of a fellow student’s harassment campaign by institutionalizing it and heralding it." Maybe by turning away he didn't want to add fuel to the lawsuit, but it's not exactly the classiest move, and surely there were other times in the ceremony he could've gotten a drink of water.

A spokesperson for Columbia denied the move was on purpose, telling the Times that the "the mattress had been between Ms. Sulkowicz and Mr. Bollinger and that no snub was intended."