Muncie, IN – An Iranian-born professor who has been teaching at Ball State University for 37 years will be on leave for the rest of the semester after he called police to handle a student who refused comply with a seating reassignment in his classroom.
The student, Sultan “Mufasa” Benson, later alleged that the professor, Dr. Shaheen Borna, singled him out because he is black, the Associated Press reported.
Benson also claimed that Borna put his life in danger by calling the police on him.
“I’m automatically going to be scared and on guard,” he told CNN. “That shows me that you don’t care about my life.”
Benson further complained that he has experienced nightmares and anxiety since the incident.
The disagreement between Borna and Benson occurred in Borna’s Marketing 310 class on Jan. 21, CNN reported.
Benson arrived to class to find that someone had taken his regular seat, so Borna told him to take an empty seat towards the back of the room, Benson said.
Approximately 30 minutes later, another student left the class, so the professor asked Benson to move up into the empty seat, CNN reported.
Instead of complying, the student asked Borna why he had to move, especially since he was seated in a place where he could charge his laptop.
At the beginning of the semester, Borna, who is known as a well-respected, “by-the-book” instructor by his colleagues, has students sign off on a form acknowledging that he has explained all of his class policies to them, the Star Press reported.
The signoff form also included a section acknowledging that students were given time to inquire about the classroom policies.
“You are required to be on time,” one section of the syllabus read. “I usually lock the door before my lecture. I reserve the right to change class-sitting chart without any explanations.”
When Benson pushed back against Borna’s request for him to move into the open seat, Borna followed the university’s Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities and told him he would alert police if he did not comply, the Star Press reported.
Under the code, faculty members have the power to tell a student to leave the room temporarily if they are causing a disruption.
“If the student refuses to leave, University Police should be called and requested to remove the student from the academic setting,” according to the codebook.
Two officers responded to the classroom, at which point Benson left, the Associated Press reported.
The situation sparked campus protests and a letter in the university’s student newspaper from over 100 faculty members “condemning the misuse of police in the classroom, calling out the institutional racism behind it, and telling you, our students, that we are with you.”
“Our first concern is Borna’s rapid escalation of the situation and involvement of the police to resolve a disagreement about seating,” the letter said, according to the Associated Press. “No disruption or physical threat existed. The use of police to get one’s way in the classroom is institutional violence. We support our students of color as they deal with the trauma of these events and navigate its fallout.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also denounced Borna, and said the situation was an example of “weaponizing the police against people of color impetuously,” the Associated Press reported.
“The actions taken by Professor Shaheen Borna are yet the latest example of thoughtless behavior that yields traumatic and frequently detrimental outcomes,” the NAACP declared. “Countless men and women throughout our nation have experienced discrimination, racial profiling, and over-policing at the hands of bigotry and intolerance.”
Nearly immediately after the incident, Borna sent out emails apologizing to the class and to Benson specifically, CNN reported.
“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 wrote. “I am sorry that my actions today did not contribute to that.”
On Feb. 7, a group of 30 faculty members submitted a letter to The Daily News to express their support of Borna.
“Dr. Shaheen Borna has been a dedicated faculty member over the past 35+ years. He has been an outstanding researcher, teacher and has spent countless hours on committees and serving students,” the letter read. “In fact, there has been no faculty member during his tenure who has spent more time on the Ball State campus than Dr. Borna.”
On top of spending many weekends and evenings devoted to his work, Borna was also recognized as Ball State University’s Outstanding Professor just a few years ago.
“Dr. Borna chose to handle the situation by his understanding of the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities…others thought the situation should have been handled differently,” his supporters said. “For those of you who do not know Dr. Borna, please don’t judge him on this one act. We all have events in our lives, if we had them to do over again, we would have handled them differently.”
The faulty members said that Borna continues to be committed to providing an “inclusive and supportive environment” for students, and called the situation an “unfortunate incident.”
On Feb. 13, the university announced that Borna will not be teaching classes for the rest of the semester, the Star Press reported.
“This decision is in the best interest of Dr. Borna and the University,” the school said in a statement. “The dean of the Miller College of Business, in consultation with the provost, made this decision to ensure that we provide continuity in the curriculum, eliminate any unnecessary distractions, and help our students complete the appropriate course expectations.”
The university did not bring charges against the professor, nor was he subject to disciplinary action or formally suspended, the Star Press reported.
Benson said that Borna’s absence for the rest of the semester is “definitely a small victory,” according to the Star Press.
“I’m glad to see them do something temporarily,” Benson said. “My only worry is if this slap on the wrist is enough. I’m not doing anything out of spite. I want justice, and a temporary leave for all of the policies he broke is still just the bare minimum, but at least it’s a step forward in the right direction.”
He said he is considering suing the university and Borna over the incident, CNN reported.