MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — A group of Columbia University student activists marched to school president Lee Bollinger's office Monday and deposited a mattress designed to look like a check for $471 — the amount the group was fined by the university for leaving 28 mattresses outside the president's home after a recent rally against the university's sexual assault policies.
The delivery of the mattress, which was covered in a sheet featuring lettering to make it look like a check, was in protest of the fine student activists believe was punitive and meant to silence them instead of meeting their demands.
University officials said the fine was a customary part of cleanup costs related to student activities.
"There is never such thing as a fine for any group because of its views,” a university spokeswoman said.
Bollinger was not in his office Monday morning when a handful of student activists arrived with the mattress. Nevertheless, they read a statement expressing disappointment with him and the university, and left behind the large mock check. The check's memo line read: "Stop punishing survivors and activists. Be the leader on our side!"
After students initially learned of the fine, a day after the Oct. 29 rally, the national women's rights nonprofit Ultra Violet stepped in and said it would pay it, said Allie Rickard, a Columbia senior and student activist. The nonprofit did not immediately confirm it had paid the $471 fine. Students said they dropped off a real check to pay the fine at Bollinger's office after the protest Monday morning.
"The fine is such a symbol of the administration's lack of respect for the students... and of [Bollinger's] lack of commitment" to change, Rickard said.
Mattresses became a symbol of university students' struggle for better rape and sexual assault policies when Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz, who claims she was raped by a fellow student, began carrying a dorm room mattress around campus this September. Sulkowicz titled the project, which is also doubling as her senior thesis, "Carry That Weight," and she said she'll continue to carry the mattress until her alleged rapist is removed from campus.
A new campus group with the same name was formed this fall to support her efforts and to help mobilize students on other college campuses across the country.
Carry That Weight chose to dump 28 mattresses in front of Bollinger's home on Morningside Avenue at West 116th Street because 28 students filed a federal complaint in April arguing that the university mishandled students' sexual assault and rape allegations, members said. The federal Department of Education has not yet ruled whether it will investigate the allegations.
Within an hour-and-a-half of leaving the mattresses outside Bollinger's home, they were gone, Rickard said. Students reported seeing the mattresses in university dumpsters soon after that, she noted.
The next day, the university told the group Student Worker Solidarity, the only university-recognized group that participated in the rally, it would be fined for the cleanup.
A few days later, students learned the fine would be $471, the amount that a Columbia spokeswoman said it cost to remove the mattresses.
"We decided we needed to just pay this... we didn't want [Student Worker Solidarity] to be in limbo," said Michela Weihl, a Barnard College sophomore and Carry That Weight member.
Fines are "a common thing for controversial groups" because they're a means of punishing them, said Columbia senior Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, Carry That Weight's co-founder and a vocal campus activist.
Leaving the 28 mattresses was "an act of desperation," because students do not feel safe on campus, the group wrote in a letter to Bollinger that they gave to his staff along with the faux check Monday.
They see the fine and the trashing of the mattresses as tantamount to a dismissal of their demands, which include stronger penalties for those found responsible for rape or sexual assault, removal of university deans from the adjudication process, and more student input in the policy-creation process.
The university confirmed it has not issued a new statement regarding whether it will meet these demands.
Columbia did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding whether the students would be fined for leaving behind this mattress.
Carry That Weight members said they didn't know whether they'd face additional fines, but Ridolfi-Starr noted that she "wouldn't be surprised though, given [Bollinger's] history of retaliation."