Naval Academy English professor Bruce Fleming said his firing last week was linked to his public criticism of the academy, but documents show some students complained about behavior in his classroom that allegedly included calling students “far-right extremists,” sending a picture of himself in a Speedo and touching students without consent.
Fleming said the Naval Academy’s findings are the result of an investigation that denied him due process and sought any reason to fire him from his tenured position. He has taught at the academy for 31 years.
He denies ever touching students without consent, and physical contact was relegated to hugs and pats on the back. He also said he doesn’t remember calling students “far-right extremists” but said it was within his right to do so as a joke if he wished.
The Speedo picture was part of an email following-up on an poetry reading, Fleming said.
The professor has been a public critic of the Naval Academy. After his firing, Fleming blamed his outspoken nature as reason for his dismissal.
As for his teaching style, Fleming admitted it was unique but served a purpose. He said he does push-ups for the students, flexes, and talks openly with them about the military’s transgender policy and practicing safe sex.
It helps engage the students and educate them about things they may not have learned at home, he said.
“I’m the first to admit that it isn’t like anyone else’s teaching style,” Fleming said. “It develops slowly, but it really, really works.”
The academy removed Fleming from his teaching position in January as they talked with his students and investigated a complaint about his classroom behavior. The results of that investigation prompted Academic Dean Andrew Phillips to fire Fleming for “conduct unbecoming of a federal employee.”
“In the written reply to the Notice of Proposed Removal, you claim you are being unjustifiably punished for articles you have published, and that you are being denied your academic freedom to use ‘theatrical and provocative’ teaching methods,” Phillips wrote in his decision. “I do not agree; I find nothing in the record that supports your claim.”
A USNA official declined to comment, citing federal law protection of personnel information.
Fleming’s attorney, Jason Ehrenberg, provided The Capital with copies of Phillips’ comments, instruction evaluations and the investigation findings, along with Fleming’s response. USNA has not released any records regarding Fleming’s departure and employment. Fleming has said he would sign a waiver allowing USNA to release that information.
Ehrenberg plans to appeal Fleming’s firing to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
The academy asked leading questions and looked for any reason to remove Fleming because of his comments about the institution, Ehrenberg said.
“They are basically trying to create this sense he had this sexually charged classroom,” Ehrenberg said. “Certainly he is not sexually harassing male or female students in class.”
Fleming’s teaching style
Fleming described his teaching style as harnessing the physical aspects of himself and the classroom. Midshipmen work out every day and have to pass certain physical tests. So Fleming uses push-ups and squats, and talks about own experiences with weightlifting and modeling.
Physical is not sexual, Fleming said. It was about cutting through the students’ apathy.
“Maybe I have been living in a fool’s paradise,” he said. “Everybody uses the same gym. Everybody has the same goals. We have a shared background. That is my different teaching style, and yes it is adapted to the Naval Academy.”
Some students appreciated Fleming’s teaching style, according to instructor evaluations. They gave him high marks as a teacher for challenging and pushing them to be better writers. Others applauded Fleming for his life advice skills and his “unconventional class.” One evaluation gave Fleming high marks for teaching, but said his off-topic subjects could be inappropriate.
Other evaluations were more negative.
Several students complained that Fleming wouldn’t stay on topic, discussed “descriptive sexual content” or would lash out when students ask too many questions. One student — who is Asian — complained that Fleming kept mispronouncing his name and at one point told the student to “f*** off.” Another student found the Speedo photo to be inappropriate.
Fleming denies making fun of the Asian student’s name and admits that he often talks about other subjects in his class. Fleming recalls discussing transgender people when the military was debating allowing transgender soldiers to serve openly. And he also said he has talked about practicing safe sex and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.
As for the Speedo photo, Fleming admits he sent it but said he doesn’t think it was inappropriate. The photo — along with shirtless photos of Rafael Nadal and Mark Wahlberg — was part of a lecture on John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and it was sent to an all-male class, Fleming said.
It was proving a point about the poem, he said.
“I’ve been sharing weight rooms and pools and locker rooms with these students for years,” Fleming said. “I wasn’t showing a (nude picture) for God’s sake. I didn’t take off my clothes in class. No students complained.”
The Speedo photo resulted in a conversation with higher-ups who told him to stop doing it. Fleming said he didn’t see a problem but agreed to stop.
Later he would send photos of his flexed arm and his face. The phrase “flex” is used often in his class, Fleming said, to connect students on being strong in opening paragraphs. Fleming said he just considered it his version of the flex emoji.
These photos aren’t any different than the Naval Academy sharing photos of shirtless midshipmen and plebes on social media, Fleming said.
He provided a few Facebook posts as examples.
“They are trying to establish a pattern of this pervert sending pictures — it was not that at all,” Fleming said.
©2018 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.