Ball State University President Geoffrey S. Mearns says a marketing professor committed a “gross error” and had an “unwarranted overreaction” when a student declined to change seats in a classroom.

The faculty member, Shaheen Borna, who has issued an apology, called the police, resulting in much of the incident being caught on camera and posted to social media.

The student, Sultan “Mufasa” Benson, who is black, believes he could have been injured or killed by the police if he had lost his ability to remain calm.

Two officers responded, but the situation ended peacefully when Benson voluntarily left the scene.

“As a professor at Ball State University, it is my responsibility to ensure that you and all of my students receive an excellent educational experience,” Borna, who is white, said in an email to the student and his fellow classmates. “I am sorry that my actions today did not contribute to that.”

According to Mearns, who has been out of state, Borna insisted that Benson move to another seat. When the student did not agree to do so, the professor called police.

“This choice was a gross error of judgment, and it was simply an unwarranted overreaction,” Mearns wrote in an open letter to students and alumni on Thursday.

“The classroom is a special place,” the president went on. “It is a place of invigorated learning, and it should always be a welcoming environment for all of our students. In the incident this week, we did not meet that important standard.”

Benson expressed disappointment in an interview with The Star Press that the university has not identified what happened as “a discrimination act. At the end of the day, they’re trying to cover it up.”

It’s a “big issue, a huge issue,” that the police were called, Benson said, because once they became involved the outcome “could have gone several different ways. I don’t think they’re getting the concept of that yet.”

Students in Borna’s class have assigned seats. Benson’s was on the second row. He said he arrived two minutes before class started to find another student sitting in his seat. The professor told Benson to take a seat in the back. It was near an electrical socket, so Benson plugged in his laptop. Later, after another student sitting in the front row left the classroom, Benson was instructed to take that seat.

“I was not acting out, I was not talking on my cell phone, I was learning, I was following the lesson plan,” said Benson, who declined to move seats because his computer was still charging.

And Benson wasn’t the only student in the back. One student was even farther back. “Why not start at the very back of the classroom?” he asked. “Why choose me to move? Why? That’s the question. Why me? I’ve still yet to get an answer.”

The professor gave Benson two options: move or the police will be called. To Benson, those two options were like “jumping from one to a thousand.”

Benson started to worry about what the professor might have told the police. “I don’t know what the man told them,” he said.

And Benson wishes the police had been a little more open and taken time to find out what was happening instead of first asking him if he was a student and if he was supposed to be in the classroom.

Though he felt he hadn’t done anything wrong, Benson left after the officers arrived — to avoid putting himself at risk.

The student told The Star Press he would accept President Mearns’ invitation to meet and discuss things. The two have met on prior occasions as the result of Benson’s role as president of the campus Men and Women of Color group, as a campus DJ, and as the former Black Student Association representative to Student Government Association. He’s also a member of a black fraternity on campus.

Student dissatisfied by Ball State’s response

Mearns’ letter outlined the university’s response to the incident, including:

  • The dean and department Chair met with the professor to express concern that the situation had unnecessarily escalated. The dean established corrective actions including appropriate training and oversight for the professor going forward. The professor also sent an apology to all the students in the class for the incident and how it was handled. In addition, the department chair met with the student to make sure the university fully understands this experience and how it can support him. The department chair also will be meeting with all the students in the class.
  • “When I return to campus, I hope that the student will agree to meet with me so that I can hear firsthand what transpired in the classroom on Tuesday. I will also work with Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Ro-Anne Royer Engle to arrange a meeting with student leaders to hear their perspectives and suggestions on how we can improve.
  • “The provost will work with all the deans to ensure appropriate training for all faculty.

“Next Thursday, I’ll meet with the Black Faculty and Staff Association to seek their guidance on how we can continue to create a more inclusive campus community.  I will also reach out to the leadership of the Black Alumni Constituent Society to seek their counsel as well. I will also arrange a meeting with some of our local community leaders to obtain their input and support for our efforts to improve.”

After reading the letter, Benson remains dissatisfied. “I can’t say I’m proud to be a Cardinal anymore,” he said. “Not at the moment. In the future, who knows? I know there are plenty of good faculty on campus. Some have reached out to see what they can do.”

Benson says he can’t say this is the first racist incident he has encountered or learned of on campus.

He will graduate in May with a degree in business administration and a minor in entrepreneurship. He plans to return to Chicago and open a restaurant or barber shop that will get some inner-city kids off the street and put money in their pocket.

“It would seem that the incident was most unfortunate and particularly inexplicable insofar as calling the police to deal with a student who does not want to change seats,” Fran Watson, a clinical professor of law at Indiana University, told The Star Press. “The professor overreacted and hopefully will benefit from the interventions.”

Regarding Benson’s fear of being injured or killed by the police, Jim Duckham, Ball State’s director of public safety, told The Star Press:

“This reminds me that we have a ways to go to bridge the gap between police and community. That is why it is so important we continue our community policing efforts at Ball State University.  My goal is to have positive interactions with everyone in the community that we serve.”

The Muncie Human Rights Commission was glad to see Mearns take action.

“Right now, the Muncie Human Rights is concerned with the rights and safety of the Ball State Student, therefore the Muncie Human Rights Commission approves of the action steps taken by Ball State President, Geoffery Mearns, his staff and the board of directors,” commission director Yvonne Thompson said via email. “Our office has a very good working relationship with Ball State where we can talk openly and resolve issues such as this.”

Star Press