Over the 27 years Bruce Fleming has spent teaching future naval officers to craft sentences and to scrutinize modern verse, the bow-tied English professor also has assumed the role of the U.S. Naval Academy’s most outspoken and tireless critic.
In interviews with national news organizations, he has derided the school’s admission practices, its prohibition against hand-holding, even its very existence. When academy brass have given him flak for it, they have ended up raising the professor’s profile rather than diminishing it.
That pattern seemed to repeat itself last year after Fleming, 60, was investigated, then cleared for making disparaging comments about the school’s sexual assault prevention training in class and in e-mails to two female students. But the matter did not end there. Now, Fleming is accusing the school of trying to silence him with a formal reprimand that could potentially lead to the end his career at the Navy’s elite training ground.
“What they are trying to do is to shut me down,” Fleming declared, “to put me at 11:59 so when the clock strikes 12, they can fire me.”
His latest troubles began more than a year ago, just as the academy was plunged into the national debate over how to stop military sexual assault. The more than 4,000 midshipmen had just completed sexual assault prevention training. A contentious classroom exchange led to a series of events that culminated in June with school officials issuing a formal reprimand, along with denying Fleming a research grant and his annual pay increase.
Fleming called the sanctions an attempt by academy administrators to “put me in my place” and described his treatment as “Kafka married to the Keystone Cops.”
His last run-in with school officials exposed an effort to deny him a pay raise for criticizing efforts to boost minority enrollment. The academy settled with him three years ago without admitting wrongdoing.
Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman, denied any vendetta against Fleming. “The Naval Academy does not promote or condone any behavior that would be viewed as an act of intimidation,” Schofield said. “We are unaware of any attempt by either an individual or the institution to intimidate Fleming or any other member of the faculty.”
Schofield said he could not talk specifically about Fleming, citing a prohibition on discussing “the details of internal personnel actions.”
But school administrators expressed their views in a succession of internal reports that were provided to The Washington Post by Fleming’s attorney, Jason Ehrenberg.
Disputes over free speech and academic freedom may seem inevitable inside a military institution that requires conformity and deference to authority. But the Naval Academy has more civilian professors than West Point, the Air Force Academy or the Coast Guard Academy and is unusual in the world of military higher education in having tenured faculty.
Without tenure, “political powers would have pushed [Fleming] out a long time ago,” said George R. Lucas Jr., a professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who retired from teaching at the academy last year.
He described Fleming as a “self-styled narcissistic provocateur” who likes to “get himself in the middle of a controversy and, in doing so, he raises important issues.”
“They may not be as awful as he says,” Lucas said. “But he provides a window on the workings of the school. These things do need to be examined and discussed.”
Fleming is hard to ignore even when he is not staking out a controversial position. He is tall and immaculately groomed, with a penchant for three-piece suits that set him apart among his civilian colleagues but also help give him credibility with his perpetually uniformed students.
His tradition of performing one-armed push-ups on the first day of class also resonates with midshipmen, who are evaluated on their physical fitness as well as their academic performance and who may not be happy to be stuck in Fleming’s remedial writing class, which students refer to as “trucker’s English.”
In August 2013, the academy was under intense scrutiny over its handling of a high-profile case involving three former Navy football players who were accused of sexually assaulting a female classmate at an off-campus party. (Charges were later dropped against two of them, and the third was acquitted.)
The midshipmen had just completed annual sexual assault prevention and response training. In two classes, Fleming criticized the training for fostering a presumption of guilt against male students. A female student in each class pushed back. One of them, a sexual assault prevention response guide, argued that Fleming was perpetuating “the rape myth.”
The school has withheld the women’s names for privacy reasons, and efforts to interview them were not successful.
Fleming followed up with the women via e-mail and wrote e-mails to all the students in both classes about the exchange, according to investigators.
“I can tell that you were not comfortable with me questioning the givens of sexual assault training . . . and I hope that I gave you time to express your POV [point of view],” he wrote one of the female students. “Please get used to the fact that there is no assertion that is too sacred for me to question it.”
The female midshipmen felt singled out and harassed by the professor’s comments and e-mails and took their concerns to sex assault prevention officials who were later described by academy administrators as personal mentors. Fleming believed the female midshipmen were trying to bring a sexual harassment complaint against him.
“They didn’t follow regulations and meant to do me harm,” he said.
An initial investigation, led by English Department Chairman Mark McWilliams, found the sex assault prevention officers “mistakenly” went to the office that handles sexual harassment complaints. That office did nothing, and the matter was turned over to the English Department.
During that probe, two deans instructed McWilliams to keep Fleming away from his class while investigators questioned his students. Fleming said the deans told McWilliams that he was a “danger” to his students and that he was forbidden to have contact with them. He returned to teaching two days later, but he said the episode was humiliating.
His experience echoed that of James F. Barry, a former hockey coach and untenured leadership professor who was barred from his classroom in 1996 after writing a highly critical Washington Post op-ed article about what he called the academy’s “culture of hypocrisy, one that tolerates sexual harassment, favoritism and the covering up of problems.”
The superintendent, Adm. Charles R. Larson, had Barry stand up in a meeting of about 4,000 midshipmen and faculty, pointed at him, said, “That man there is a liar and a traitor.” Barry eventually won the right to teach again but found it impossible to do so. He reached a settlement with the academy and never went back.
“The midshipmen see guys like me or Bruce stand up and get knocked down,” Barry said. “And the lesson to them is they don’t want that to happen to them.”
The English Department investigation cleared Fleming, saying his interactions with the students fell within the bounds of academic freedom.
But Fleming refused to let the matter drop, filing conduct offense charges against the two women for “disrespect or insubordination to a superior or authority figure” and for “failure to use good judgment.”
Midshipmen usually receive such charges from military superiors for other forms of misbehavior, such as underage drinking. If found guilty, midshipmen can lose privileges or even face expulsion.
One of the female midshipmen protested the English Department’s handling of the matter and the conduct code charges, and a second investigation began in early 2014. It was led by a more senior official, Col. Paul Montanus, director of the academy’s division of humanities and social sciences.
After his initial exoneration, “instead of moving on with the semester, you continued to engage in further inappropriate conduct,” Montanus wrote to Fleming in a reprimand letter. “Academic freedom does not afford a faculty member the right to use the classroom as a bully pulpit for his or her own social, cultural, and political views unconnected to the course material.”
Montanus said filing charges against the two women amounted to retaliation and was “unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Fleming filed unsuccessful complaints with the Naval Inspector General, the faculty senate and the Navy’s Office of Special Counsel, arguing that Montanus’s probe was an illegal attempt to apply military standards of conduct to a civilian. A retired Navy captain was tapped to conduct a review of Montanus’s investigation. The findings of the third probe, finished in August, affirmed the reprimand, which will sit in Fleming’s file for two years and then be expunged.
Last week, Fleming, as a Defense Department employee, filed an appeal with the Merit System Protections Board, according to Ehrenberg, his attorney.
Despite the fallout, Fleming said he has no regrets about filing the conduct code charges — the very instruments of student control he has often railed against.
“It was,” he said, “the right thing to do.”