Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the stage at Columbia College’s Class Day on Tuesday — apparently against the wishes of Columbia University.
Sulkowicz began carrying her dorm room mattress around campus when the school year began as part of her senior thesis, a performance art piece called “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” meant to address the administration’s handling of her alleged rape.
She accused student Paul Nungesser, who also graduates today, of rape in 2012. Nungesser was later cleared of assault, and earlier this year filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming it permanently damaged his reputation.
Columbia found Nungesser “not responsible” for the alleged rape charges, and his name was not made public until Sulkowicz filed a police report in May 2014. The New York District Attorney declined charge him with a crime, citing a lack of reasonable suspicion.
Teo Armus, Deputy News Editor at the Columbia Spectator, said on Twitter during the ceremony that Sulkowicz did not shake Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s hand. Armus also tweeted out photos of Nungesser attending the ceremony in cap and gown.
Zoe Ridolfi-Starr was one of four women who helped Sulkowicz carry her mattress on Tuesday.
“It was extremely meaningful, it means a lot to people beyond Emma and myself, and all the other survivors in the audience,” Ridolfi-Starr told Metro in a phone call after the ceremony. “This really represented a burden we have faces, and to be successful in spite of all that, for our peers and families to stand up, was really meaningful.”
Ridolfi-Starr said hundreds of students put red tape on their hats in solidarity of the movement to end campus sexual assault.
Earlier in the week, university administrators sent out an email to graduating seniors warning them not to bring large objects to commencement.
“Graduates should not bring into the ceremonial area large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people,” the email said, according to the Spectator. The campus newspaper reported emails sent regarding the last two graduations did not specifically bar “ceremonial large objects.”
“The administration tried to discourage us from doing it, and has been alienating for the last several years of my life,” Ridolfi-Starr said of the administration. “She (Emma) was clear the whole time this was part of her plan, what she had to do confines of her piece.”
Ridolfi-Starr, who is the lead complainant in a Title IX discrimination complaint against the university and who started a support group for survivors , previously told Metro that she was sexually assaulted during her freshman year at the university.
Sulkowicz’s piece inspired similar movements on college campuses across the country. In October, students at Columbia and an additional 130 groups around the world held a National Day of Action for “Carry that Weight Together,” and Sulkowicz attended the State of the Union address with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).
Since she started carrying her mattress, SUNY schools have adopted a sexual assault policy that requires both parties to verbally give consent, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has embarked on a campaign to bring the policy to all state schools.
“We communicated to all students that the shared celebratory purpose of Class Day and Commencement calls for mutual respect for the security and comfort of graduating students and their families in attendance,” Columbia University said in a statement. “ We are not going to comment on individual students; it is a day for all members of the Class of 2015. We were not going to physically block entry to graduates who are ultimately responsible for their own choices.”