Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming, who has spoken out against the Naval Academy's diversity efforts in the past, was kept out of class earlier this week while the school investigated student complaints that involved his comments on academy sex-assault prevention policies. He's set to return Wednesday. (Courtesy photo)
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A Naval Academy professor has been cleared in an investigation into comments he made to students concerning the school’s sexual assault prevention and response program.
The decision came a day after academy officials announced they had administratively reassigned English professor Bruce Fleming. They requested that he stay home from class while investigators interviewed his students about his behavior, Fleming said.
“The investigation concluded and determined that professor Fleming should return to his normal teaching duties Wednesday, Sept. 18,” academy spokesman Cmdr. John Schofield said.
Fleming claims the investigation, first reported by The Baltimore Sun, stemmed from a complaint filed by two female midshipmen in response to two class discussions about the SAPR program, as well as a poem that students were asked to read, analyze and respond to.
According to email correspondence provided by Fleming to Navy Times, Fleming and one of his students had a difference in opinion over the SAPR program, which he tried to reconcile through an email follow-up.
Specifically, Fleming said he disagreed with one student over the SAPR program’s usage of the term “victim,” rather than “alleged victim,” to describe complainants in sexual assault and harassment reports.
After class, he wrote to the student to follow up.
“I can tell that you were not comfortable with me questioning the givens of the current iteration of sexual assault training in the Navy and USNA, and I hope that I gave you time to express your [point of view].
“I try not to react to inappropriate tones of voice and to cut young people with firm opinions a lot of slack, because I know how passionate you are about things at your age.”
In a subsequent emailed, he continued:
“What I am trying to do is to say you went too far, but it’s okay because that’s what kids and young adults do. I try to respect your boundaries (which doesn’t mean agreeing with what you firmly believe in, or the current propaganda of U.S.N.A. or [the Navy]), and wanted to make sure you understood I expect the same from you.”
Fleming told Navy Times that he did not intend to exacerbate the situation by following up with the student.
“I wasn’t defending myself, I was making it clear to her that she had been completely out of line,” he said. “No, I needn’t have written it at all, but she seemed so upset I felt I had to make sure she was OK.”
With the other student, he argued against SAPR program’s use of “sexual assault” as an umbrella term for a range of unwanted sexual contact — anything from rape to touching a woman’s breast through her clothing. .
“I don’t actually think we’re disagreeing as I think your point was that all are classed as ‘assault,’ ” he wrote to her. “I agreed but suggest this is misleading.”
Also included in the complaints, per Fleming: A writing assignment in which students were asked to to discuss the word and imagery choice in “Kong Looks Back on his Tryout with the Bears,” by William Trowbridge. In it, Trowbridge — the current poet laureate of Missouri — describes King Kong reflecting on an unsuccessful tryout with the Chicago Bears while crawling up the Empire State Building. The piece references Kong threatening to drop “this shrieking little bimbo” and the animal being distracted from the gridiron by the taste of the football players’ wives.
The students filed complaints first with their SAPR adviser. After determining that sexual harassment was not a factor in the students’ complaints, the report was referred to the academy’s academic deans, who took action to remove Fleming from the classroom.
On Sept. 13, Fleming said, English department chair Mark McWilliams informed Fleming that academy officials would be going forward with an investigation and it would be easier if Fleming did not come to class on Monday.
Schofield would not confirm that academy officials interviewed Fleming’s students Monday to assess his behavior.
“It is inappropriate to discuss the details of the allegations or the investigation,” he said.
In the interim, Fleming filed complaints with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the academy’s Faculty Senate against Academic Dean Andrew Phillips and Vice Academic Dean Boyd Waite, for “circumventing regs and singling me out for public humiliation.”
“To be clear: there was no back and forth about ways to proceed, no attempt to have students meet with me or with [the] chair, no prior involvement with me,” Fleming said. “All this happened at the level of the administration, which is strictly against regulations involving faculty members.”
This isn’t the first time Fleming has run into controversy for his remarks. He’s been quoted in Navy Times and numerous other publications, speaking out against academic diversity regulations as well as the Navy’s sexual assault prevention programs.
Fleming has taught classes in literature, creative writing, film and drama over 27 years at the Naval Academy, earning a 1994 academy research excellence award in addition to writing several books and contributing opinion pieces to national publications.