The midshipman stared across the courtroom at his fired English professor. With anger in his voice, the young man said it three times:
“I don’t want to be anything like him.”
Midshipman Matthew DeSantis saw no role model in Professor Bruce Fleming and he told the court so. His testimony brought tense moments Wednesday to the reinstatement hearing for one of the U.S. Naval Academy’s most senior and controversial professors.
DeSantis’ 16-page complaint in January 2018 — he notes Fleming called him a “right-wing extremist” — launched a seven-month investigation that resulted in Fleming being fired after 31 years at the Annapolis institution.
The student and teacher — as well as professors, classmates and academy administrators — appeared in Philadelphia Wednesday where attorneys for Fleming and the academy argued over whether the professor should get his job back. The judge is expected to hand down his decision in the coming weeks.
“One 18-year-old who my client had a visceral effect on is not sufficient basis to terminate somebody,” Fleming’s attorney, Jason Ehrenberg, told the judge.
But the academic dean had found Fleming guilty of “conduct unbecoming a federal employee,” citing a pattern of profane and unnerving behavior that flouted the personal boundaries of his students.
Students reported their professor was frank and graphic in discussing sex acts. One wrote that Fleming’s disdain for the academy felt excessive. Some said they were unnerved by his hugs. Some found his blunt “life lessons” refreshing; others, sickening.
“The most memorable life lesson is when he went into detail as to how transgender surgery works,” DeSantis said. “How the male appendage is cut off.”
A handful of midshipmen testified and struck a softer tone under questioning from Fleming’s attorney and the administrative judge. Naval Academy administrators had faulted Fleming for rubbing the back of Midshipman Andrew John Buckley.
Buckley testified the class would sit in a circle for discussions and he found himself next to the professor.
“He would reach over and touch my back, pat it,” Buckley said.
“How many times did this happen?” asked Terrence Cook, the academy’s attorney.
“No more than twice,” Buckley said. “More of a rub, I would say.”
The midshipman said he felt uncomfortable, but he went on.
“I didn’t have a problem with him,” Buckley said. “I enjoyed his class. I didn’t think he was malicious.”
Midshipman Justine Ransdell said Fleming showed the class a photo of his teenage son with his prom date. Fleming discussed the girl’s dress and spoke of her supposed intentions for wearing it short.
“I think it was inappropriate,” Ransdell said.
“Were you personally offended?” Administrative Judge Mark Syska asked her.
“I was not offended,” she said.
But Midshipman Richard Jin said he was when Fleming purposely called him the wrong last name, say, Kim, Jong or Lim.
“I attempted to correct Professor Fleming three or four times,” Jin told the court. “There was one incident where he told me to f--- off.”
In his 16-page letter, DeSantis also accused Fleming of obscene, sexually explicit and “x-rated” discussions. When questioned, he said he was referring to Fleming’s talks on transgender surgery, the use of condoms and an academy policy forbidding sex in the dormitory. The judge asked him if he grew up in a religious family and attended a religious high school; DeSantis said “yes.”
The young man also said he felt Fleming had unfairly given him a “C” in the class. The judge asked about his grades and De Santis said he had been an “A” student.
Fleming has appealed his firing to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears federal employment cases. He wants to return to the classroom. He did not testify.
Academic Dean and Provost Andrew Phillips testified that Fleming earned high marks for his classroom instruction. The dean, however, said he couldn’t overlook the professor’s behavior.
“I grant that the professor can be — often is — a very effective teacher of writing,” Phillips told the judge, “while at the same time he’s disrespectful.”
Since 2013, administrators twice sent Fleming for counseling and issued him two letters of reprimand. Fleming sent a shirtless photo of himself to students in 2015 and again two years later. Fleming has said he was trying to make relevant the 200-year-old poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and the theme of reality vs. an ideal.
“He’s made it quite clear that he intends to continue that behavior,” Phillips testified. “He doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s done.”
Fleming’s criticism of the Naval Academy has grown louder and louder. By 2009, he was telling a CNN reporter that admissions standards were weakening. In a 2010 Op-Ed in The New York Times, he wrote the Naval Academy “lost its way.” He blasted the academy with articles in Salon, The Atlantic, The Federalist and Inside Higher Ed.
“Fleming’s at it again,” wrote Cmdr. John Schofield, the spokesman, in one email presented to the court. “Almost comical how he regurgitates the same argument.”
Fleming’s friend and fellow English professor Anne Marie Drew testified in his defense. Drew said Fleming irked a series of academy superintendents over the years.
“They had a blind spot when it came to Bruce,” she said. “From a military standpoint, they think he should just shut his mouth.”
Drew has taught English nearly 30 years at the Naval Academy, and she said students today are less tolerant of uncomfortable lessons.
“The student body is shifting,” she told the judge. “I’m speaking in huge generalities, they are more — I’ve had students in my class say, ‘That makes me uncomfortable.’ I say, ‘Good! Good! Tell me why...’ — more sensitive maybe?”