ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As a civilian tenured English professor, Bruce Fleming believes he has made important contributions to the U.S. Naval Academy during his 30 years on staff, providing views from outside the military while teaching writing, literature and critical thinking skills to future Navy and Marine officers.
Fleming also hasn't been afraid to publicly criticize what he perceives as the shortcomings of military academy training — and that is what he believes ultimately prompted school officials to fire him last year. His iconoclastic op-eds questioning the academies' very existence have drawn the ire of military officials for years, he says.
But Fleming's critics say it's not just the professor's quest for public headlines that leads them to support his ouster. They say he has behaved inappropriately in the classroom and become too disruptive to the academy's mission.
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An administrative law judge overturned Fleming's dismissal last month, and he returned to the academy on Monday on the first day of the new school year — but not as a classroom professor. The academy has assigned him to scholarly research and other tasks while it appeals the judge's ruling.
"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," said Cmdr. Alana Garas, an academy spokeswoman.
In a 2017 op-ed in The Federalist, Fleming, who makes $135,000 a year, wrote that academy students have become "cast members in a military Disneyland run for the benefit of the brass and the tourists, not the taxpayers who pay their way and want better-than-average officers."
Fleming contends military service academies are more like military indoctrination centers than learning institutions that cultivate creative, outside-the-box thinking, which is what he says is needed in future military leaders.
"The more you treat them like children — the more you tell them what to think, the more you circumscribe their ability to make their own decisions — the less effective fighting force you're going to have," he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I see myself as an escape valve for their frustration and as someone who can teach them to respectfully disagree with superior officers."
Fleming's contrarian views are accompanied by an unusual teaching style: The 65-year-old professor is known for doing one-armed pushups in class and participated in physical workouts with his midshipmen students to help win their respect. He once sent a photo of himself in a Speedo to an all-male class, as part of a discussion about John Keats' poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
John Schofield, a former academy spokesman who said he respected Fleming as a professor, said the administration was concerned about his behavior in the classroom.
In 2018, the academy launched an investigation after five midshipmen filed complaints against the professor. Among the allegations: that he referred to students as "right-wing extremists," made comments in class about sex and transgender surgery and touched students without their approval.
Schofield also cited Fleming's criticism of the academy's sexual harassment prevention training several years ago — the professor said it presumed guilt on the part of the accused — and how he criticized two female midshipmen who complained about his comments.
"Our needle was not moved by the op-eds," said Schofield, who is now retired from the Navy. "Our needle was moved by things that he did beyond that in the classroom that became a distraction from the mission."
Mark Syska, a judge for the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, overturned Fleming's dismissal last month.
In his ruling, Syska cited "credibility issues" with the midshipman who filed the longest complaint. Syska described Midshipman Matthew DeSantis' 16-page grievance as "greatly exaggerated — to the point of being hard to credit on certain points." The judge also concluded that, based on the testimony of eight others, including two professors, "the overwhelming majority of his students" enjoyed his teaching style.
Fleming contends the effort to fire him is an encroachment on academic freedom. The Naval Academy is the only major service academy with tenured civilian professors who outnumber military professors, unlike at the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"I think they're just now waking up to the fact that they made a mistake by tenuring civilians," Fleming said. "I think what they really want is ... subservient faculty members the way they want subservient students."
Michael Johnson, an academy graduate who studied creative writing with Fleming and graduated as an English major in 2002, said he thinks the professor is good for the school.
"I think he's an asset ... because of his viewpoints, and he pushes people to think differently and to question things," Johnson said. "I respect him, and I hope that he teaches midshipmen again soon. I think it's a win-win-win for him, the midshipmen and the academy."