A controversial Naval Academy professor, who Navy officials said emailed partially clothed photos of himself to students and used “demeaning” language in the classroom, will be reinstated by the end of the summer, according to a ruling issued Wednesday by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
Bruce Fleming was removed from the Annapolis institution in August after a seven-month long-investigation into his conduct. A tenured civilian professor, Fleming appealed his removal and made the case for reinstatement in front of an administrative judge in May.
The Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates personnel actions for federal employees, reversed Fleming’s removal and ordered back pay. Fleming is one of the Naval Academy’s most senior professors and earned $130,000 a year.
Fleming called the ruling “a moment of triumph."
“This was all cooked up by the Naval Academy," Fleming said. “They’ve been looking for a way to get rid of me for 15 years."
An administrative judge criticized a midshipman’s claims against Fleming as being “greatly exaggerated” and knocked down the academy’s suggestion that the English professor’s behavior was “unbecoming of a federal employee,” according to the board’s ruling.
“Moreover, much of the charged conduct ... did not appear to be actual misconduct in the context of free-wheeling classroom discussions,” Administrative Judge Mark Syska wrote.
Academy officials were notified of the board’s decision Wednesday, which becomes final next month. But there is an option to appeal, Cmdr. Alana Garas, spokeswoman for the academy, wrote in an email.
“The decision as to whether or not to file the petition for review is under evaluation,” she wrote.
The investigation into Fleming’s behavior was spurred by a 16-page complaint lodged by Midshipman Matthew DeSantis in January 2018. The complaint was accompanied by more testimonies from other midshipmen.
A faculty panel looked into the midshipmen’s complaints. Fleming was removed from the classroom during the investigation, the board ruling stated.
Midshipmen alleged Fleming referred to students as “right-wing extremists,” touched them without consent and made sexual remarks in class, according to the ruling. Fleming was also critical of the Naval Academy, despite working there for 31 years.
Fleming rejected the notion he was trying to harm his students. In fact, those on the receiving end of Fleming’s actions “did not generally take offense or have any actual issue” with the professor, according to the judgment.
Syska called the conflict between Fleming and the primary complainant “the perfect storm.”
“An eighteen-year-old from a conservative, religious family, who had only attended religious schools and only experienced academic success versus the profane, irreverent, brutally critical ... and highly theatrical appellant had conflict written all over it," Syska wrote about the midshipman.
The student said Fleming gave him his first "C" of his academic life, according to the judgment. Syska said the midshipman “gave the impression his complaint was motivated more by animus for his grade than any sort of genuine concern about the appellant’s teaching style.”
DeSantis could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
Syska went on to characterize Fleming as a “unique professor at the academy.”
“He is irreverent, theatrical, fashion-conscious, outspoken in his criticism of the academy (both in the classroom and his writings), and liberally sprinkles his classes with profanity and discussions of sexually-related topics (from condom use to transgender surgery)," the judgment reads.
Fleming became notorious for sending a photo of himself wearing a Speedo to an all-male class. Fleming said he was trying to convey the theme of reality versus an ideal, which is explored in the 200-year-old poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
“I’m proud of the way I get students to think," Fleming said. “I do one-arm push ups, tell jokes, I give it the whole nine yards. I’m looking forward to motivating the midshipmen again in August."
Pete Banos agrees. The former student met Fleming as a plebe in 2009. He said Fleming helped him, a 6′9″ basketball recruit who usually sat in the back of the classroom, unlock a love for learning.
“I really have to credit Bruce with helping me discover that part of myself academically. He helped guide me,” Banos said. “He turned on a lifelong, natural curiosity that I sort of pushed aside because I was a very good high school athlete, a very good college athlete."
Banos left the academy after his first year, but went on to Connecticut College to study philosophy. But he said Fleming embodies the Naval Academy’s mission to prepare students not only physically, but mentally.
“I think, at the end of the day, what the academy says they want to be and what they actually are, are two different things,” Banos said. Fleming, he said, told him, “You can be an athlete; you can be physically fit. But you can also be intelligent; you can be well-spoken.”