Emma Sulkowicz walked across the stage at a Columbia University graduation event Tuesday the same way she’s walked around campus during the school year: While carrying a mattress to protest campus sexual assault.
The mattress was the centerpiece of Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” senior arts thesis. She said she was raped by a fellow student in her dorm room during her sophomore year and that her attacker was cleared in a school hearing. The mattress symbolized what she said was the university’s flawed handling of her complaint.
“I will be carrying this dorm room mattress with me everywhere I go for as long as I attend the same school as my rapist,” she told the Columbia Daily Spectator last fall. “The piece could potentially take a day or it could go on until I graduate.”
On Tuesday, at what Columbia calls Class Day (“a school-specific ceremony during which individual students are recognized for their achievements”), four other students helped Sulkowicz carry the mattress to cheers and applause from the audience.
Sulkowicz didn’t name the student she said had attacked her, but as her project garnered national attention, his identity soon became public. Paul Nungesser denied raping Sulkowicz and sued the university and administration officials for allowing a “harassment campaign” even after a disciplinary panel cleared him of wrongdoing.
Nungesser also graduated on Tuesday. His lawsuit, filed in federal court, had requested that the university keep Sulkowicz from carrying the mattress during graduation, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“Our son’s graduation should have been a joyous moment for our whole family,” his parents said in a statement Wednesday, adding that the university bowed “to a public witch-hunt.”
“This has been a deeply humiliating experience,” Nungesser’s parents said. “We are very proud of our son for graduating from college, but our memory of it will always be tainted by Columbia’s wrongdoing.”
The university updated its Class Day guidelines Monday to prohibit “large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people.” But it was unclear whether the mattress would fall under that new provision, the Spectator reported.
Columbia declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“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,” a Columbia spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Following the ceremony, several posters depicting her as a liar cropped up around campus.
The mattress protest resonated far beyond Columbia’s campus and inspired student activists elsewhere to haul around their own mattresses.
Sulkowicz, who joined 22 Columbia and Barnard students in filing a federal Title IX complaint against the university, became a national figure: She appeared on the cover of New York magazine, won a Susan B. Anthony Award and attended the State of the Union address as the guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
[This post, originally published May 19, has been updated. It has also been corrected to reflect that Sulkowicz carried the mattress at a Class Day event, not commencement, as originally reported.]