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Naval Academy fires tenured professor, citing shirtless photos shared with students

English professor Bruce Fleming in 2014 on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

The U.S. Naval Academy this month fired a tenured English professor for what officials in Annapolis described as “unprofessional conduct,” including touching students without their consent and emailing them photos of himself partially clothed.

Bruce Fleming, a civilian member of the Annapolis faculty for 31 years, characterized his dismissal as part of “a revenge campaign” to silence an in-house critic. He said he was denied due process and plans to appeal.

“I do NOT apologize,” he wrote in an email Friday. “Nothing I did was inappropriate.”

The academy notified Fleming of the decision in an Aug. 15 letter that cited episodes in which the professor referred to some students as “right-wing extremists,” touched students during class without consent and sent students photos of himself without a shirt after being told that such communication was wrong.

Andrew T. Phillips, the academy’s academic dean and provost, wrote in the letter that Fleming had not taken responsibility for his actions. “Given this set of facts, I do not have confidence that you will perform at a satisfactory level in the future,” Phillips wrote. The investigation began after a midshipman complained about Fleming’s conduct.

Fleming’s lawyer, Jason H. Ehrenberg, provided a copy of the letter to The Washington Post as well as other documents in which the longtime professor defended himself and explained that his actions were meant to engage students in the classroom.

Responding to investigators, Fleming denied in April ever calling any student a “right-wing extremist” but said it would be within his rights to do so, “especially as a joke.”

He said that his class sometimes discussed sexuality in literature and as an issue within the military or on college campuses — but never inappropriately.

Regarding physical contact with students, Fleming told The Post: “I hug a lot of students and they hug me. I am comfortable with them and they with me.” At a school that prizes physical education, he said, he made it a point to do one-armed pushups for the class. “Talking about and showing physicality is a way to bond with [students] AND part of our official mission,” he wrote. He also said that he would on occasion pat a student on the shoulder but that nothing was out of bounds.

Regarding shirtless pictures, Fleming said that he had worked as a model some years ago and has a number of posed photos that show his torso. A few years ago, he said, he shared one with male students to make a point about body imagery in a poem. He said a superior told him not to do that again. Within the past year, he acknowledged, he sent a “partial ‘flex’ shot” — not a full torso — as a “meme” to students “without thinking about it.” He said that it showed “about 1/8 of my body with a flexed arm” and that he often uses the term “flex” in class to refer to a topic sentence.

Fleming, 64, who has a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College and a PhD in comparative literature from Vanderbilt University, was removed from teaching abruptly in January as the academy investigated complaints against him. For years, he has been well-known in Annapolis and beyond as a sharp-tongued critic of admission practices and other aspects of a venerable institution that educates future officers for the Navy and Marine Corps.

“The service academies are now the vanity projects of the military brass, not viable contributions to U.S. defense,” Fleming wrote in October for the Federalist. “They’re like all those military jets the current cabinet members love to use: flashy, expensive, and lots of fun.” Fleming asserted in the essay that academy students are not as strong as the “best and brightest” image that many believe. “I can’t tell whether the military brass really have no clue, or this is just hype to keep the tax dollars flowing and make the students feel it’s worth it,” he wrote.

A Naval Academy professor is under fire for interactions with two students

Cmdr. David McKinney, an academy spokesman, declined to discuss Fleming’s case, citing confidentiality of personnel matters. He confirmed that Fleming is no longer an employee of the academy.

Annapolis has about 570 faculty members to teach 4,500 midshipmen. Slightly more than half of its instructors — 291 — are civilians. Of those, 178 have a measure of academic job security known as tenure.

In the world of colleges and universities, professors with tenure are generally protected from arbitrary dismissal. The idea is to ensure that they have freedom in teaching and research. McKinney said the academy’s tenure policy follows guidelines of the American Association of University Professors.

“The Naval Academy makes a commitment of career-long employment to a faculty member who achieves tenured status,” McKinney said. “That individual faculty member, in turn, makes a commitment to a career of outstanding teaching, research and scholarship, and service in accomplishment of the Naval Academy’s mission.”