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Did Columbia University President Snub ‘Mattress Girl’?

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

Did he or didn’t he—avoid shaking her hand?

We know rape cases often come down to a “He said – She said” impasse.

But a handshake?

Good thing there’s video.

Emma Sulkowicz, who graduated from Columbia University last week, has made headlines for her senior thesis—a performance art project where she carries a mattress wherever she goes on campus.

It’s an odd but effective act of protest, a visual sign indicating her burden as a victim of rape and the failure of Columbia University officials to act on her rape complaint against a fellow student.

The accused male student, Paul Nungesser, has subsequently filed a lawsuit against the university for failing to protect him from what he believes are false accusations as a form of harassment that have marked him for life.

And the University? It’s caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

So should we be surprised by the move by Columbia President Lee Bollinger, during last week’s Class Day ceremonies?

Despite indirect suggestions by the university to dissuade her, Sulkowicz displayed her thesis project mattress for a last time last week.

She took her mattress to the ceremony.

But when she approached Bollinger, did he dodge?

You know—like the guy inside the elevator who fakes trying to keep the elevator open as you race to make it inside?

If you live or work in a building with elevators, you’ve come to know it as a bit of “fine feigning.”

Is that what we have here—an example of “feignery”?

Let’s go to the video tape.

From the video posted on YouTube by the Columbia Spectator, the student paper, Bollinger turns around to a seat behind him at :17 seconds into the tape, for what, it’s not clear.  Roses for the ladies, perhaps?

(See it here:

Meanwhile, Sulkowicz and her mattress handlers come near the center of the stage at a normal rate of speed.

But by the time the president returns to the moment at hand, Sulkowicz, standing at the lead mattress position, has moved by, and the mattress actually acts as a kind of wall.

Darn. Oh, well. No congratulatory handshake.

Or did the president pull off a successful avoidance of what he may have perceived as a possible disruption?

The New York Times reported it as a snub.

New York Magazine also reported on the Times story and got this response from the university:

“The Times story about Columbia College Class Day reflects a highly selective and strained interpretation of actual events…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.”

And I guess now we know why gracious college presidents need a PR department.

So the question becomes did Sulkowicz and “the students who chose to carry a mattress in their hands” march right past the dignitaries? Were they breaking the permissible speed limit for mattress walking by individual or group? That’s got to be a violation of some leash or curb your mattress law in someone’s rule book?

Or does Bollinger have enough of a cover story to create a plausible bit of “oops, sorry; It’s been a great four years, don’t let the mattress hit you on the way out”?

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

And yes, that’s what college promises us all. Four years of learning bliss topped off with a smiling handshake from the prez.

Judging from the tape, there didn’t seem to be students forcing the mattress-bearers to move along at such a breakneck pace. It also appeared that a truly gracious Bollinger had ample time to rectify the situation and greet Sulkowicz and her group appropriately.

It is, after all, a graduation ceremony, a joyous occasion, for goodness’ sake. And Bollinger isn’t a robot. Or just some signature at the bottom of a memo.

He’s president of Columbia University.

There’s no reason a pending lawsuit should prevent him from showing a human side at this milestone event for the university’s most important product—its students.

Even those who make the news like Sulkowicz.

Of course, Bollinger showed he’s a lawyer first, then an educator. Or make that corporate educator. A bit better than University of Phoenix, sure. But it was his time to really show a little leadership in your own great little fiefdom.

Call it a missed opportunity to show a little humanity.

Had Bollinger offered Sulkowicz a handshake, it probably would have still made news. But it certainly would have been viewed as a more positive step in light of higher ed’s record on the issue of campus rape.

And we all know how that issue has confounded the most educated people in the world.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist and commentator on race, media and politics who writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. He blogs at

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