Here's what happened. Sulkowicz graduated from the University on Tuesday, and the University discouraged her from bringing her ugly old mattress to the graduation ceremony. An email was circulated Monday from the Columbia administration asking students not to bring "large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people" to the ceremony. But Sulkowicz being Sulkowicz brought the mattress anyway, and the University allowed it even though the man she accused was also in attendance to receive a diploma. (His family was devastated, but no one seems concerned about them.) Sulkowicz was told by university officials moments before she crossed the stage that she was not allowed to carry the mattress as she received her diploma, but, of course, she ignored the instruction, and she and a gaggle of enablers toted the awful thing onstage.
It's what happened next that is disputed. Video shows President Bollinger standing on stage a few feet away from a dean. Each of the passing graduates shook the hands of the dean and then President Bollinger.
Sulkowicz's name was called out and her classmates let loose a high pitched cheer and gave her a standing ovation. Sulkowicz and her minions proceeded to walk across the stage with the big old mattress. They trotted right past the dean without bothering to stop or to shake his hand. As the mattress brigade approached President Bollinger, Bollinger looked away, either being distracted or more likely pretending to be distracted. Sulkowicz moved her head for an instant, perhaps in an effort to make defiant eye contact with the man who was recently sued because of her mattress stunt, and then she and her minions trotted right past him, too, mattress and all--without attempting to shake his hand.
The BBC's on-line report of the incident had this headline: Rape protest student 'snubbed' at graduation
The New York Times recites Sulkowicz's account:
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.”Sulkowicz's account is curious because it suggests President Bollinger refused to shake her hand. Sulkowicz's claim doesn't withstand scrutiny. The video shows that Sulkowicz and her friends made no effort to shake the dean's hand just a moment before they approached President Bollinger. The dean was not in any way distracted, and there is no indication that he would have refused to shake their hands.
For his part, if President Bollinger was momentarily distracted, whether for real or for pretend, and if Sulkowicz was intent on shaking his hand, she could have done what every other graduate did -- extend her arm to shake his hand. She didn't do it. She kept walking with that big, stupid mattress in between her and the president. Nevertheless major news outlets have taken Sulkowicz's side and are reporting that Bollinger snubbed Sulkowicz.
The University said there was no intended snub and that Bollinger couldn't shake Sulkowicz's hand because the mattress was between them. The University also took issue with the New York Times' story in this statement:
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.On the one hand, Bollinger runs the risk that women's groups will accuse him of being a "rape denier" for snubbing the public face of campus rape. On the other hand, my guess is that he was happy Sulkowicz kept walking so that he didn't have to give her a photo-op that could be construed as a tacit endorsement of her puerile mattress stunt.
But President Bollinger did not refuse to shake her hand. Emma Sulkowicz wasn't looking for a handshake, she was looking for one last curtain call with her mattress, because it's all about her. The fact that President Bollinger didn't flash her a big, affirming smile was not just understandable but appropriate, given her open defiance of the university's request that she leave the mattress home.
There's an important lesson here. Sulkowicz put a questionable spin on a "he said-she said" interaction that lasted less than two seconds, and important news outlets ran with it because it fit their preferred narrative of "college woman oppressed by patriarchy." And this incident happened in broad daylight before hundreds of spectators and any number of video cameras. If President Bollinger could be wrongly convicted in the court of public opinion for this minor transgression under these not-very-murky and very public circumstances, think how easy it would have been to smear Paul Nungesser for a sexual interaction that happened in the privacy of Sulkowicz's dorm room in August 2012.
Perhaps this is a teachable moment for Bollinger and his university. They have been given a very, very, very small taste of what Paul Nungesser has gone through for years. To quote the dreaded Catherine Comins, "it is not a pain that I would necessarily have spared [him]. I think it ideally initiates a process of self-exploration."