Bruce Fleming knew he was taking a risk.
The Naval Academy professor, who had been there 31 years and was tenured, expected blowback when he shared his opinions over the years. Fleming has said that midshipmen are not, in fact, “the best and the brightest,” and that they have become “cast members in a military Disneyland.”
Parents get furious, he said, and academy leadership has called his comments “unprofessional.”
But Fleming didn’t expect to get fired, he said. The English professor, 64, said he was dismissed a week ago after students filed complaints. Weeks prior he had written an article published in The Federalist, a conservative magazine, saying services academies are “vanity projects of the military brass.”
“They are so sick and tired of me,” he said Thursday. “They just wanted to get rid of me.”
The academy won’t comment on Fleming’s departure citing a policy against publicly addressing personnel matters. The academy did acknowledge that it’s an unusual occurrence.
“I would have to go back a very long time to figure out the last time someone was fired,” said spokesman Cmdr. David McKinney. “This is not something that happens regularly.”
The academy launched investigations into Fleming’s conduct early this year after two students filed complaints weeks after their Fall 2017 English class ended.
One student reported feeling uncomfortable during a class discussion on transgender surgery, according to Fleming. Another complained that Fleming occasionally patted him on the back or shoulder during class, Fleming said.
The Capital requested copies of the complaints but did not receive them on Thursday. An academy records custodian said the complaints could only be made public if the newspaper could demonstrate a public interest in the file or if Fleming signed a privacy waiver. Fleming said he is willing to do so.
Fleming’s lawyer, Jason H. Ehrenberg, said he could not share the documents because they include student names.
Other complaints were filed after the academy pulled Fleming from the classroom, Ehrenberg said. Officials interviewed “each and every student from each and every one of Bruce’s classes” for two semesters, according to Ehrenberg.
“The Academy was fishing for negative comments from students and the students were fed leading questions,” Ehrenberg said. “The vast majority of Bruce’s students had only very positive things to say. There was a small minority of students (really just a handful) that were bothered by some of Bruce’s teaching methods.”
He added: “This was a witch hunt from the beginning.”
Fleming said the Naval Academy has been trying to punish him for more than 15 years.
It started when Fleming was a member of the admissions board, he said. He alleged he observed ‘back door” favoritism and affirmative action that he considered unfair.
Fleming published an opinion piece about it and ended up on CNN.
About six years ago, Fleming said the academy attempted to deny Fleming a merit raise “because I published an op-ed [the dean] disapproved of.” The Office of Special Counsel intervened and the matter was settled, according to Fleming, who said he couldn’t provide further details.
In April 2016, a memo was issued to faculty about the process for students filing complaints against staff members. Before that point, midshipmen with grievances took them directly to the professor at issue, or their immediate supervisor, Fleming said. The memo changed that, according to Fleming, allowing mids to go “directly to deans.”
“What they’re trying to do is create a civilian version of Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, conduct unbecoming of an officer — as in, you didn’t actually violate anything on paper but we don’t like you anyway, so we’re going to punish you,” he said.
“They want to make an example of me and shut anyone else up who might be inclined to follow my lead.”
It’s very difficult to fire a tenured professor, said Annapolis lawyer William Ferris, who worked in the academy English department in the 1970s, but is not involved with this case.
“It would have to be extremely bad,” he said, adding that in his nearly 50 years of experience working in and around the academy, he’s heard of only one tenured academy professor getting terminated. “It takes a very severe situation to be able to dismiss a tenured professor.”
If Fleming was dismissed for his criticism of the institution, that would be a problem, Ferris said.
“The rights of a professor or a military officer at the Naval Academy under the First Amendment are no different than anyone else’s,” he said. “You have a right to say whatever you want. That’s not a basis for dismissal.”
Fleming said he is confident his firing will be overturned by the Merit System Protection Board.
“The Naval Academy has acted illegally … which is ironic because people at the Naval Academy raise their right hand and swear to protect the Constitution, “ he said.
Fleming could retire quietly. But he likes his job too much, he said. And it’s precisely his dedication to his profession that he said is the reason he criticizes his employer.
Navy officers have the privilege and responsibility of leading and guarding the lives of their enlisted subordinates, Fleming said. He wants to be sure the midshipmen know what they’re getting into, he said, and how to spot “BS” when they see it.
A self-described “Vietnam baby” who received a draft number that was never called, Fleming described teaching as his patriotic duty.
“I speak out, out of commitment to the defense of the United States of America and out of commitment to my students,” he said. “My commitment is to make thinking officers.”
That means reading All Quiet On the Western Front and having practical conversations about war, which “grinds people up and spits them out,” Fleming said. In his class, students confront what Fleming said the academy doesn’t want them to see.
Fleming said he’s just doing his job as a professor, and he wants to continue doing it.
“My commitment was to the mission of the Naval Academy which says its goal is to educate midshipmen morally, mentally and physically,” he said. “Unlike any other college I know, the service academies are committed to the whole person, and I liked that. I still like that.”