In hindsight, Bruce Fleming says, the Speedo photo was open to misinterpretation.
The English professor and ex-model sent his youthful glamour shot to midshipmen in an all-male class at the U.S. Naval Academy. Fleming says he tried to make relevant the 200-year-old poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and the theme of reality vs. an ideal. Instead, the photo became evidence for Navy commanders to finally fire the longtime civilian rabble-rouser.
Fleming, 64, will argue for reinstatement before an administrative judge Wednesday in Philadelphia. His appeal puts a focus on the classroom rebellion he’s waged over his 31 years at the academy.
“All these kids, they learn just bowing their heads and saying ‘yes, sir.’ That kills me because I spent my life not bowing,” Fleming said. “The way you get an effective military is to get young officers who are not afraid to question what they’ve been told.”
The academic dean 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.
In the buttoned-up Annapolis institution, the tenured professor has long reveled in his role of iconoclast. Fleming is the one who will show up to class dressed like Capt. von Trapp from “The Sound of Music,” who starts the semester with a demonstration of one-armed pushups, who gives a famous lecture on the merits of sunscreen, dental floss and the application of a condom.
“I’ve had a kid say to me, ‘Oh, well, sir, you put it on halfway through,’ ” he said.
The senior professor — with a wife, three children and salary of $130,000 a year — was fired nine months ago. In his class, nothing was off-limits. Not his gay brother who died of AIDS. Not a boyhood friend who went to Canada to become a woman. Not the length of the prom dress worn by the date of his teenage son.
Of course, his “life advice” digressions included some milder themes: Never take steroids, avoid fattening food in King Hall. But Fleming didn’t shy from profanity or sex talk. He’s the English professor who broke down the origins of the colloquialism “that sucks.” To administrators and some midshipmen, he goes too far.
“One day in class, the period was taken up by Professor Fleming going into extreme detail regarding sexual transitions to other genders,” a midshipman wrote the dean. “I tear up thinking about the thousands of Midshipmen who had to endure the constant abuse, attacks and detrimental conduct … knowing that more Midshipmen will have those experiences in the future makes me sick.”
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, Academic Dean and Provost Andrew Phillips wrote.
“It is apparent that you do not find any aspect of your behavior to be inappropriate,” Phillips wrote in the August 2018 letter. “You offer no intention to alter any aspect of your behavior.”
Academy officials declined through a spokeswoman to discuss Fleming’s case.
The professor says his firing comes at a chilling age for free speech on campuses. Violent protests erupted two years ago at University California, Berkeley in advance of a visit by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Two weeks ago, Harvard University announced that it would not permit a law professor and attorney for Harvey Weinstein to continue leading an undergraduate dorm where students had protested. With conservative speakers saying their voices are being silenced on campuses, President Donald Trump said he will order colleges to support free speech if they want federal funding.
The Naval Academy, Fleming notes, is largely conservative, white and male.
“I’m being painted as a crazy left-winger who talks about sex-change operations,” he said. “I hope we outlive all this political correctness.”
An Eastern Shore native and the son of two Salisbury University professors, Fleming studied philosophy at Haverford College outside Philadelphia. Graduate studies led him to The University of Chicago, briefly, then Vanderbilt University. He says he was a Fulbright scholar in West Berlin and taught in Rwanda before arriving in Annapolis in 1987.
An admitted “gym rat,” he found the Naval Academy — with its mission to develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically — in accord with his own belief in the Greek ideal of a healthy mind and body. Here was a challenge: Not one of his students would ever be an English teacher.
“I went to a Quaker college, for God’s sake,” he said. “These people are trained to be killers.”
Over the next three decades, he taught Sophocles, Shakespeare and Keats to uninterested first-year midshipmen. Typically small-town teens, Fleming says, who grew up on Rambo movies and came to Annapolis to become real men. No one slept in Fleming’s class.
The former model — “I’m totally into clothes” — wore $3,000 suits, he says, and an Egyptian galabeya tunic. Midshipmen tried on his jackets. He held “Joke Fridays.”
Fleming offered up one former student who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997 and works for the U.S. Department of Justice. David Ausiello said Fleming actually cared.
“Bruce Fleming’s class was like therapy,” Ausiello said, “a place where you weren’t going to get told how great you were or how the world is black and white because that just wasn’t the reality. He fostered an environment that encouraged his students to challenge the norms, ask why when appropriate, and be comfortable operating in the gray areas.”
The professor earned performance rewards in the 1990s. As years went by, his criticism of the academy grew 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 called it a “military Disneyland, beloved by tourists but disillusioning to the young people who came hoping to make a difference.”
He blasted the academy on C-SPAN, in his own books and in The Atlantic. Meanwhile, his theatrical teaching methods raised eyebrows. Students seemed to have the attention span of a goldfish, he told them. Fleming signed emails “Glub, glub.” The military requires the conformity of a herd, he said; he called his students “midsheeple.” According to the investigation report, he called their laptops “porn machines.”
In a September 2017 email, he called two students his “right-wing extremists” and faulted them for failing to support arguments in papers on guns and taxes. “This is not a left-right thing,” he wrote them, “it’s a justify that thing.”
A midshipman complained and administrators began an investigation. They gathered more than 100 pages of comments from midshipmen. Students reported their professor was frank and graphic in discussing sex acts. One wrote that Fleming’s disdain for the academy felt excessive. Another wrote that Fleming removed his shoes and walked on a midshipman’s back to crack it. Some said they were unnerved by his hugs. Some found his blunt talk refreshing; others, sickening.
Fleming draws a distinction between sexuality and physicality. He sent them the famous 1992 Calvin Klein underwear ad of Mark Wahlberg. He says it too was part of his lesson on the impermanence of beauty.
In August 2018, the dean found Fleming’s conduct unbecoming and fired him. He has appealed to the board that hears federal employment cases, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. Fleming and his attorney will make their case to an administrative judge over two days in Philadelphia.
He’s hoping the judge will understand what he says the academy’s leadership seems to miss: that his antics are designed to get students to think for themselves, even if that means going a little overboard.
He also teaches “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the enduring poem about a suicidal order to charge forward in overwhelming odds.
The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson tells of glory in their death; Fleming doesn’t.
“I say to the students, ‘Don’t follow the order.’ ”