Fired professor: Naval Academy no longer 'serious academic institution'

On May 22 in Philadelphia, my case for reinstatement as a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Fleming v. The Department of the Navy, was heard by the court system for federal employees, the Merit Systems Protection Board. The case was really Fleming against the dean and provost of the academy, Andrew Phillips, who signed the letter firing me after 31 years on Aug. 18, supposedly for “conduct unbecoming a federal employee.” The judge has weeks, or longer, to issue his ruling because he has to provide detailed explanations of his reasoning.

Aside from my obvious interest in which side wins, this hearing left me deeply pessimistic about the future of the Naval Academy. Once it could claim to being a serious academic institution. Now it can’t.


Dean Phillips was clear in his position and clear in his testimony. Though I might well be an excellent teacher and prolific scholar — I was acknowledged to be both — I did not show the attitude toward the Naval Academy and its administration, nor its students, that the administration required of its faculty, whether civilian or military, and so was beyond being “rehabilitated.” I had to be simply terminated.

Rehabilitated is the word that made me choke (or was it snort?). My attorney had to poke me. Rehabilitation — or “remediation” — is what the academy wants from midshipmen who have been caught lying or cheating. Nowadays we don’t throw as many out as years ago, because that makes them look bad. Instead, if found guilty, midshipmen are subjected to several months of counseling by an officer; then it’s over. Many have told me what a joke it is. Rehabilitation also has echoes of the punishment techniques of Communist regimes: They torture and break dissenters, who reappear after years of prison as shadows of their former selves, but made functional again: “rehabilitated.”


The conviction that senior professors with decades of professional experience should be treated as if they were 20-year-old military enlisted or dissenters in a totalitarian regime is the horrifying bottom line of the dean’s testimony. Indeed, everything the dean said about professors was similarly threatening, degrading, patronizing and completely out of line with the norms of academic institutions with which the academy likes to compare itself.

Or I should say, “liked” to compare itself. What I learned on May 22 is those days are over. Dean Phillips, himself a civilian, repeatedly made the point that the Academy was military and was run by military principles, not academic, and repeatedly compared senior professors to subordinate military members on ships. He even coined a new phrase in echo of the famous “conduct unbecoming an officer” Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which the military uses to punish anything it doesn’t like in officers, referring with a straight face to “conduct unbecoming a [civilian] federal employee.”

Civilian tenured professors, no matter whom they work for, operate according to entirely different rules than the military, just as doctors are doctors in the operating room whether they are at Johns Hopkins or Bethesda Naval Medical Center. We are vetted for five years before earning tenure, which itself comes after the vetting in our rigorous six- to seven- year graduate programs where we earned our Ph.D. degrees. Once tenured, we are re-evaluated repeatedly for promotion. Our goal is truth, not imposing our will by force. And the function of educational administrators is to facilitate the careers and productivity, whether with books or students, of faculty members. They are not senior officers whom we have to please.

The Naval Academy now clearly sees things differently. In his sum-up, Dean Phillips asserted that he had “lost confidence” in my ability to further (his view of) the Naval Academy’s mission and that officers who referred to enlisted by the “disrespectful” terms I used would be “relieved of command.” Tenured professors aren’t fired because an administrator has “lost confidence” in them. That’s a military term, or one for political appointees in Washington.

What USNA now clearly demands is a subservient faculty, just as — I have repeatedly argued — they want subservient midshipmen. That’s not the way to make an effective military, aside from changing the Athens-Sparta combination, with each side respecting the other, that once made the academy so attractive to so many people, including me. But now all that has changed. Athens is dead.

What will that mean for the midshipmen, whose faculty members have to toe the party line? Why should younger academics take a job at a place where they can be fired at will by administrators? Why should students looking for a real education want to go there?

This is the last nail in the coffin of an institution that once was great.

Bruce Fleming (Twitter:@bef_annapolis; email: is the author of many books and taught for over three decades at the U.S. Naval Academy.