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Fired Naval Academy professor is back on campus, but not teaching

Bruce Fleming, a tenured English professor at the Naval Academy, got his job back after a judge’s order. The school is not permitting him to return to teaching, although he is doing other work. The academy says it intends to appeal the decision. (Brian Witte/AP)

The U.S. Naval Academy is not allowing a professor to return to teaching despite a judge’s ruling reversing the school’s decision to fire the educator for “unprofessional conduct.”

Bruce Fleming, a tenured English professor known for his criticism of the school, was fired last summer after academy officials investigated complaints about alleged behavior, including sharing shirtless photos of himself and touching students.

Fleming has called his dismissal revenge, and has denied doing anything inappropriate.

In July, an administrative judge with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which considers appeals of federal agencies’ personnel decisions, ruled in Fleming’s favor and ordered him to be reinstated.

Judge orders reinstatement of fired Naval Academy professor

The Naval Academy intends to appeal the judge’s decision, Cmdr. Alana Garas, a U.S. Naval Academy spokeswoman, said in a written statement.

Fleming was reinstated as an employee of the Department of the Navy, with all pay and benefits to which he is entitled, Garas said, effective July 24. Those will continue throughout the period specified in the judge’s ruling, she said.

“While the appeal is pending, Fleming will be assigned duty assignments such as scholarly research and writing, and service to the school,” Garas said. “His duties will not include teaching or advising midshipmen, as his presence in the classroom and engaging with midshipmen in any advisory role would be an undue disruption to the academic environment.”

Fleming has been critical of the Naval Academy during his 31 years as a civilian member of the faculty, writing in 2011 that the school had dramatically overstated the selectivity of its admissions.

He has been sanctioned by the academy in the past. The current case began when a midshipman filed a complaint about Fleming’s behavior in a class called “Rhetoric and Introduction to Literature.” Four other midshipmen also filed complaints about Fleming, with concerns including treating students unfairly because of their political beliefs, mispronouncing an Asian student’s last name, and touching students on the neck, back and shoulders in class.

Administrative Judge Mark Syska found significant credibility issues with a primary witness, noted that most of Fleming’s “victims” weren’t offended by him and wrote that much of the behavior at issue didn’t seem to be misconduct in the context of freewheeling classroom discussions. Syska said the class was apparently popular with students, who enjoyed Fleming’s irreverent, dramatic teaching style.

Fleming shared a recent letter from a school official that explained the professor would not be allowed to advise or teach midshipmen because that would “ignore the seriousness of the charged misconduct.” He got his campus access card back Wednesday and his academy email, and he is on a couple of committees this fall, he said, “but basically I’m on sabbatical again … wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Fleming said he is eager to return to teaching because he feels he has a mission to give midshipmen a perspective they won’t otherwise get at the academy — to question what they’re told.

“That’s precisely why they want to keep me out of the classroom,” he said.