WASHINGTON – A civilian professor at the U.S. Naval academy and an outspoken critic of the institution now says school officials are trying to silence him with a formal reprimand that could potentially end his career.
Bruce Fleming has taught English at the Annapolis campus for 27 years. He's become the academy's most outspoken critic, deriding its policies and practices in national media outlets, and has long clashed with leadership at the Navy's elite training ground
Fleming's latest troubles began last August as the academy was plunged into the national debate over how to stop sexual assault.
In two classes, Fleming criticized the school's sexual assault prevention training as fostering a presumption of guilt against male students. A female student in each class pushed back, with one arguing that Fleming was perpetuating "the rape myth."
Fleming later e-mailed the two female midshipmen and all the students who were in both classes about the exchange, according to investigators.
"I can tell that you were not comfortable with me questioning the givens of sexual assault training ... and I hope that I gave you time to express your POV (point of view)," he wrote one of the female students, according to The Washington Post. "Please get used to the fact that there is no assertion that is too sacred for me to question it."
The female midshipmen then complained to sex assault prevention officials.
An initial investigation led by the chairman of the English department cleared Fleming, saying his interactions with the students fell within the bounds of academic freedom.
But Fleming didn't let the matter go. Instead, he filed conduct offense charges against the two women for "disrespect or insubordination to a superior or authority figure" and for "failure to use good judgment."
One of the female midshipmen then protested the charges and the English department's handling of the matter. A second investigation, this time by a more senior official, began early this year. That probe led to a written reprimand to Fleming in June, along with denying Fleming a research grant and his annual pay increase.
The investigation found that the charges Fleming filed against the women amounted to retaliation, and that his doing so was "unacceptable and will not be tolerated."
"Academic freedom does not afford a faculty member the right to use the classroom as a bully pulpit for his or her own social, cultural, and political views unconnected to the course material," wrote the investigator, Col. Paul Montanus, director of the academy's division of humanities and social sciences.
Following the reprimand, Fleming filed unsuccessful complaints with the Naval Inspector General, the faculty senate and the Navy's Office of Special Counsel, arguing that Montanus' investigation was an illegal attempt to apply military standards of conduct to a civilian.
A retired Navy captain conducted a review of Montanus' probe and affirmed Fleming's reprimand in August. Fleming appealed last week.
"What they are trying to do is to shut me down," Fleming said, "to put me at 11:59 so when the clock strikes 12, they can fire me."
Academy spokesman Cmdr. John Schofield denied any vendetta against Fleming.
"The Naval Academy does not promote or condone any behavior that would be viewed as an act of intimidation," Schofield said. "We are unaware of any attempt by either an individual or the institution to intimidate Fleming or any other member of the faculty."