The parents of a Columbia University senior published an open letter to the institution’s president and board of trustees this week, critiquing them for allowing her rapist to remain on campus.
Emma Sulkowicz has recently sparked national headlines thanks to her senior thesis in visual arts, a project called “Carry That Weight” that involves taking her mattress with her everywhere as long as her rapist remains on campus. She was raped in her dorm room bed, and is using her mattress as a powerful symbol of the burden of dealing with the aftermath and ultimately being denied justice.
Her parents write that, although they are very proud of her for inspiring a national conversation about these issues, they don’t want her “recent celebrity” to distract from the university’s inadequate response to her sexual assault.
“The investigation, hearing, and appeals process that followed her complaint to the University were painfully mishandled. We feel that they violated standards of impartiality, fairness, and serious attention to the facts of the case,” Leong and Sulkowicz write. “We were left with the impression of a University intent on sweeping the issue of campus rape under the rug.”
Two other women who attend Columbia University have also brought sexual assault complaints against the student who allegedly raped Emma Sulkowicz. Nonetheless, the fact that Columbia had previously found that student “responsible” for assault was not permitted as admissible evidence in her own hearing. The adjudication process stretched on for months, and Emma’s parents believe her rapist was allowed to “cast doubt” on her character in order to discredit her report.
In their letter, they write that it’s essential to reform the system so other students don’t have to go through the same thing. “If Columbia remains passive in the face of Emma’s suffering, and does not attempt to rectify the injustice done to her, survivors at Columbia will feel discouraged from entrusting themselves to the system that Columbia has recently worked so hard at putting into place,” they note.
Even before Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress project began last month, tensions were high between student activists and university officials. This past school year, Columbia students starting using red tape to symbolize their administration’s inaction on issues related to sexual violence, proclaiming that “red tape won’t cover up rape.” And last spring, after students became fed up with the lack of progress in this area, they scrawled the names of accused rapists on bathroom walls all over campus. Although administrators have recently made some updates to the campus sexual assault policy, students say officials still aren’t taking their concerns seriously enough.
These issues aren’t specific to Columbia. Across the country, universities have been accused of failing to actually punish the individuals who perpetrate sexual violence against their fellow students. A recent Huffington Post investigation found that fewer than one third of college sexual assault cases result in expulsion.
Emma’s parents conclude that, if Columbia allows her rapist to graduate alongside her, administrators will not necessarily be absolved from their responsibility to do a better job handling sexual assault complaints. “Instead, in this important moment in the history of sexual assault on college campuses,” they write, “Columbia will remain indelibly in the public mind as the university where good men and women did nothing.”