The US Merit Systems Protection Board—the judicial dustbin where the United States does battle with employees it wants to fire—is one building no bureaucrat ever wants to see. The jig may well be up by the time you arrive: Terminating a civil servant is so comically burdensome that the very fact of anyone assembling here means Uncle Sam has judged him worthy of the exertion. Certainly that was true last year when the court heard the case of US Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming.
The Academy’s commandant had arrived that day in his Service Khakis—gold clipped belt, shined black shoes, collar insignia denoting rank. Across the aisle, in a Corneliani jacket and yellow bow tie, was the flopping marlin the school had spent years trying to spear: Fleming, a longtime English teacher. Or, as the Navy would argue, a threat to order and discipline, a corrupting influence, and, reading between the lines, a profound pain in the ass.
A grudging civility hung in the air. After three military investigations, one department inquiry, a three-year-long federal lawsuit, and one whistleblower complaint, most everybody knew everybody by now. This time, the Navy had brought allegations on behalf of five students: that Fleming had discussed oral sex and transgender surgery in class, lobbed a political epithet at two midshipmen, touched one inappropriately, and, among other things, deliberately mispronounced an Asian student’s name and told the student to “f— off” (Fleming denied the last accusation). The charge that had garnered the most attention was a photo: a shirtless selfie Fleming had sent to students.
Some of the allegations would set off alarms anywhere, not least at the storied service academy, where future officers are shaped by the Honor Concept and Uniform Code of Military Justice. Fleming, though, barely raised a brow behind his tortoiseshell glasses. Over years of fighting the Navy, he’d proven impossible to fire, even as he’d acknowledged—proudly, in fact—many incidents the brass described.
It was true, for instance, that he’d told a student to fix his lisp—he said he had been “doing the Navy a favor” by pointing it out, according to the findings of one Academy investigation. And he’d happily admitted discussing anal sex in class. He was fond, too, of lampooning Academy traditions, such as the famous Herndon ritual, in which shirtless plebes climb a greased obelisk. “Talk about homoerotic! This is, like, jacked-boy mud wrestling!” he exclaimed before outlining to me his theory of Annapolis’s culture of sexual repression.
Fleming called this most recent attempt to fire him “the most skewed, the most horrible, the most demeaning” ordeal of his career. He described Academy officials to me as “assholes” and “shits.”
This year, the Naval Academy was ranked highest among public liberal-arts college in America—an honor owing to its unique arrangement in which military and civilian instructors teach side by side. Fleming, beloved by his defenders as a refreshingly contrarian voice in a chauvinistic military culture, is exhibit A for anyone who sees preserving that arrangement as important. Yet he’s also the worst spokesman imaginable for just about any cause.
Which is strange because, after all these years of sparring with the higher-ups, a larger cause is precisely what he has inspired.
Fleming is 65 but looks closer to 45, a feat he owes to a lifetime of physical fitness. Mornings often consist of an hour of jogging in place while classical music pipes from his record player. His pedigree is impressive—Haverford degree at 19, dozens of books on an array of topics. A notoriously harsh grader, he simultaneously inspired a measure of devotion: Students who took to him were sometimes called the Fleming Faithful.
Not even the most faithful, though, would ever confuse him with a naval officer. Fleming spoke frankly and cursed frequently, interspersing his lectures on Tennyson and Shelley with what he called “life lessons” about things like condom use and gay relationships. He discouraged students from standing for “attention on deck” when he entered. He dressed in a different Italian suit every day, letting students try on the jackets. A male model well into his thirties, he began his courses with one-armed pushups and called students “studs” and “studettes.” In his lingo, the thesis of a paper became “the Flex.”
His formidable talent, though, was the ability to find arguments that could offend almost anybody. Today, the tally of charges against him is pretty much a never-ending torrent of shock-jock commentary on just about every hot-button social topic. Spend some time with him and he’s likely to insult you personally.
The investigations began in 2013, a phenomenally bad time for the Academy. That year, three football players had been accused of sexually assaulting a female midshipman. As the scandal took over national headlines, the Yard felt to many like an emotional tinderbox. This was the ideal moment, Fleming judged, to criticize the school’s new sexual-assault training program. During class one day, he says, he called the training “strongly anti-male,” parodying the dogma: “If she says you harassed her, you harassed her.” He took particular affront at the new regime’s vernacular—accusers should be called “alleged” victims until the accusations are proven, he said.
Two female midshipmen shared concerns with the school, which pressed the English Department to investigate. Fleming was removed from class. But the other students in the course gave their teacher high marks overall, and he was quickly reinstated. How does Fleming remember the whole episode today? He says the two women, who dropped the course, were simply “smug and self-righteous.”
In early 2016, Fleming was back in trouble. A freshman “plebe” had come to office hours. He was Asian, a varsity soccer player. “His writing was abysmal,” Fleming says. “He had SAT scores of high 400s, 500s, which is below even our average—which in turn is 100 points below more respectable schools.” Anyway, according to Fleming and an Academy report, he pulled up the plebe’s SAT scores and tried to “diagnose” him. “How did he get into the Naval Academy with scores this low?” he asks. “The answer is he was an Asian and he was a recruited athlete”—a fact that Fleming says he patiently, but “unwisely as it turns out,” explained to the plebe.
The student filed a complaint, prompting the school to open a new investigation. Out tumbled a litany of accusations from others. According to an investigative report, students alleged that Professor Fleming discussed “the craziest place he had ever had sex with a girl,” told a midshipman his English paper “sucked big donkey dicks,” and explained that “sometimes no means yes.” (Aside from sexual discussions in class, the Academy substantiated few of the exact claims.)
It also emerged that Fleming sent the class bare-chested photos. He had e-mailed a triptych of male underwear models: actor Mark Wahlberg, tennis champion Rafael Nadal, and, lo and behold, the professor himself. The picture had been snapped during his modeling days, his pecs bejeweled with water, a dramatic gaze on his face.
“Talk about homoerotic! This is, like, jacked-boy mud wrestling!”
Fleming had a perfectly innocent explanation. The photos complemented a discussion of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” “It’s about how fake ‘perfect beauty’ is, because it’s doomed to rot,” he says. His modeling days had come up. “I didn’t see any harm in it.” Plus, it was valuable for the class to understand essential details about modeling—“I had to be greased up, they sprayed me with cooking oil, the light had to be perfect, blah blah blah,” Fleming went on. “Is it reality? This is Keats’s question. Is this perfection reality?”(His e-mails also compared his physique to Nadal’s: “He has sharper abs but I’m taller with a way better V and lats. Take that rafi!!”)
The Academy wasn’t buying it. And after months of looking into the matter, the investigative committee concluded in their report that Fleming had likely violated sexual-harassment policies.
Fleming, for his part, maintained that his style made the classroom engaging and exciting. He also had an intriguing counterargument: The Academy was bringing the code of military justice down on the heads of civilian professors, to whom it didn’t apply. His lawyer, meanwhile, discovered a trap door. The school had ostensibly based its investigation on a recently instituted disciplinary rule that formally permitted students to bring complaints directly to the military, rather than appeal first to an academic department. The effective date on the published rule, though, had been altered—an act of “gamesmanship,” in the lawyer’s view, to grandfather in Fleming’s case. The Academy denies this, saying the date discrepancies were merely a mistake.
At any rate, Fleming was never recommended for dismissal, the professor of English apparently saved by a typo.
Fleming made no special effort to hide his disgust. According to the school’s report, the only regret he voiced was that he’d “spent way too much time trying to make [the plebe] a better student.” Nor had the student thanked him, he pointed out to me, for his efforts to tutor him. “No good deed goes unpunished,” he sighs.
According to the Navy, the classroom antics had a darker side. When crossed, Fleming harbored grudges and wasn’t afraid to act on them. He had, for instance, sent a 5,767-word e-mail to the entire faculty—“Welcome to Orwell’s 1984,” he warned—in which he revealed the name of his Asian soccer-player plebe and his SAT scores, drawing attention to the student’s identity. Then there was the incident with the two “smug and self-righteous” women. Though already exonerated, Fleming hadn’t let the matter go. He relitigated his case in the press and discussed with students whether he should take action against their female classmates. Then he filed conduct violations against the women—for “disrespect or insubordination” and “failure to use good judgment.” The school ultimately put the matter to rest by issuing him a letter of reprimand.
After both cases, Fleming was convinced his actions were heroic, his persecution total. “It’s Kafka meets the Keystone Cops,” he says.
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me,” Fleming went on. “And they really are out to get me.”
There were, in fact, other reasons the Navy might have wanted Fleming gone. In its first century, Annapolis taught its officers-in-training how to win wars. In its second century, it began a slow metamorphosis into a modern college. Today, the Yard has a foot in two cultures: The same campus that vows to cultivate free thinkers is also one where professors are addressed as superior officers and midshipmen aren’t permitted to walk on the grass.
Every once in a while, these worlds collide. In 1996, a civilian professor named James Barry wrote a critical op-ed in the Washington Post that excoriated the Academy for a series of cheating, drug, and sexual-assault problems. Barry was immediately removed from teaching. At a campus-wide meeting, the superintendent reportedly told him to stand and announced, “That man there is a liar and a traitor.” Eventually, Barry was allowed back. He left instead.
Fleming was appalled but, like most colleagues, kept his opinions to himself. In 2005, he turned. He wrote his own op-ed, which spilled secrets from his short tenure on the admissions board. Only half of Academy admits were “competitive,” he asserted; the rest were racial minorities, athletes, or other special cases. The superintendent wrote a furious rebuke, and the whole thing ended up on CNN—whose reporter noted that the Navy “can’t fire a tenured professor just for speaking out.”
Fleming kept speaking out: in op-eds, interviews, and TV appearances that didn’t let up for 15 years. Annapolis was not what it advertised. The academic standards were bad and getting worse. Students became “mindless yes-men.” The Yard was a “military Disneyland” for tourists and a boondoggle for taxpayers that should be radically reformed or abolished.
So what did that make him, a professor at Disneyland? Some saw a foul-mouthed facsimile of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, an apostle of good cheer set on rescuing students from hidebound adults. “I’m there to make sure that they don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” says Fleming. “I can certainly see why that annoys the military.”
Amid the onslaught, an academic dean named Andrew Phillips fired back. When Fleming was approved for a raise, Phillips overruled it. He later sent Fleming a letter warning him that any more inappropriate public remarks could lead to disciplinary action.
But as the CNN imbroglio should have made clear, Fleming had a flair for brinksmanship. He reported Phillips to the Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency that investigates ethics violations. The paycheck retaliation violated his free speech, he claimed, and Phillips’s letter was the smoking gun. The special counsel found that the Academy had acted “illegally,” and the school chose to settle.
Once again, headlines trumpeted the free-speech professor who had outsmarted the Navy. (Through the Academy, Phillips declined to comment for this story.) Fleming, for his part, had found the ideal nemesis: “a power-hungry little shit,” he says.
“This guy is short, ugly, and he’s got a squeaky voice!”
For the next six years, the irreverent dandy and the buttoned-up officer traded blows, a spat that attracted the attention of many on the Yard. There were letters of reprimand, there was the typo that saved Fleming from the firing squad. Presiding over every investigation that dogged Fleming was Phillips. Soon enough, the dean would officiate their final showdown.
Just after New Year’s in 2018, the command received a 14-page complaint from a plebe named Matthew DeSantis. This time, the Academy sprang into routine like an all-hands drill. Fleming was yanked from the classroom. An investigation commenced. Justice was swift: Fleming became only the second teacher fired from the school in recent memory. In his final decision, Phillips cited “conduct unbecoming a federal employee.” Naturally, Fleming appealed.
It was nine months later that the two found themselves face to face in the fluorescent quarters of the Merit Systems Protection Board. Phillips would have to justify his actions under civilian standards. They were on Fleming’s turf now.
Midshipman DeSantis, like many peers, hailed from a conservative family, and he had graduated from a Christian school. He’d had second thoughts about coming forward—“I didn’t really want to be the person on the horse fighting,” he testified. But to sit in a classroom where, as he wrote in his complaint, “there was not a single class period when Professor Fleming did not bring up a sexual topic, especially anal sex,” was, to put it gently, a shock.
The plebe was offended that Fleming called him a “right-wing extremist,” described the Yard as a “waste of space,” and compared the Herndon obelisk to “a fully erect penis.” He was also disturbed by Fleming’s descriptions of transgender surgery, which he thought seemed designed to mock midshipmen who had transitioned. It was bad for morale, DeSantis said: After Fleming’s class, “you feel worthless and that you are not here to serve our nation.”
The Navy took the complaint and bundled it with other student statements—the profanities, the unwanted touching. But during the hearing, it didn’t take long for the skeptical civilian judge to extract a pattern: The Academy appeared to have spun much of the evidence against Fleming.
The school, for instance, said the professor acted inappropriately in calling DeSantis and another plebe “right-wing extremists” over e-mail, suggesting he discriminated against conservatives. But the text of the message read like a playful admonishment, and besides, Fleming had as many conservative defenders as liberal ones. The school alleged that Fleming’s sex talk was inappropriate for the classroom. But sexual topics came up often in English texts. Under questioning, it became clear that the young plebe’s offense stemmed mainly from the fact that the topics were mentioned at all—“just how sex should be this open thing.”
Then there was the shirtless picture, the capstone of DeSantis’s complaint. In the grainy selfie, the professor is nearly fully cropped from the frame. The real star of the shot is his left bicep. Fleming argued that it was a reference to the “Flex,” his moniker for a thesis statement. Plebes in the class regularly took photos flexing their biceps and often sent e-mails signed with a row of bicep emoji. It was in reply to one such thread that Fleming sent the selfie, to DeSantis and one other student.
“My mom was in tears. . . . My dad, who’s a lawyer, was very confused and was like, ‘This is not right,’ ” DeSantis testified. “It didn’t feel right the professor was sending me that type of picture.”
What circumstances could possibly mitigate such a screaming indecency? For one, the judge observed, DeSantis, too, had sent Fleming a shirtless photo—not of himself but of four half-naked men running through town in Santa caps and underwear. In the Navy’s own campus culture, a jaunty physicality presided as the secular religion—worshiped at events like bodybuilding strip-show nights. At the hearing, all Fleming’s lawyer had to do was produce a photo of the Herndon ritual, the plebes’ half-naked bodies glistening with pig lard.
Perhaps for this reason, most of the students who testified weren’t offended by Fleming. Even the one who experienced what the Navy alleged was unwanted touching recounted that he “didn’t have a problem with him.” Fleming had twice moved a hand across the midshipman’s back for about 15 seconds—long enough to provoke “a little bit of discomfort,” the student testified, but not enough to sully a fun course. As he put it, “I enjoyed his class.”
In fact, Fleming was popular—so much so that even the Navy’s lawyer conceded he was an “excellent” teacher. A thousand student evaluations over 30 years were 90-percent positive. “He genuinely cares about his students in a way no other teacher does,” reads one. “By far the best instructor I have ever had,” said many. A student who chastised Fleming—“Too much gender f*** nonsense”—rated him “Excellent” anyway: “He loves us; we love him.”
One witness who testified was Anne-Marie Drew, a former chair of the English Department. “He’s had some lapses in judgment,” she told me. “He talks about things that he should leave alone.” Her greater concern was the Navy’s overkill treatment of her colleague, which could have other consequences for the Academy. “You don’t pull somebody out of the classroom and then do the investigation,” Drew said.
Serious people had taken notice. The American Association of University Professors took the significant step of is-suing a rebuke against Annapolis—the kind of censure, perhaps, more familiar to controversies of progressive excess on liberal campuses.
Drew, who taught for 30 years before retiring last semester, observed that midshipmen on the whole had become increasingly sensitive—more willing, she told me, to say, “Well, ma’am, I’m offended by this.”
But triggering speech wasn’t cause to cut loose a teacher with tenure. “He was offended by Bruce—there’s no doubt he was offended by Bruce,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that what Bruce did was wrong.”
Why would the Academy stake so much on a case that leaked like a Soviet dinghy? In one sense, Fleming had become a symbol of insubordination. To reinstate an employee who failed to “demonstrate support for the mission,” as the school’s lawyer put it, was a concession the Navy couldn’t abide.
Most saw the conflict for the complex situation it was. “I think it’s too easy to say Bruce is the villain,” John Schofield, a retired naval commander who led the school’s public-affairs office until 2016, told me. “Bruce, I believe, represents everything that’s good about injecting civilians into military education.” Nevertheless, Annapolis had to investigate—that’s what you do when students come forward with serious complaints. “I never saw them target Bruce unfairly.”
“He genuinely cares about his students in a way no other teacher does.”
A different picture emerges from the internal Navy documents obtained by Washingtonian, detailing the origins of the Asian soccer-player case. The investigative report reveals that the midshipman didn’t initiate the case at all. According to the report, a lieutenant heard a student mention “inappropriate conduct” involving Fleming and a plebe on the soccer team. The lieutenant pressed for the plebe’s name, called him in, and typed up the meeting. The readout made its way to Dean Phillips. Five days after that, the plebe sent in his typed complaint. “I just kind of let it go,” the student later told investigators, citing Fleming’s tenure and other factors, “until [the lieutenant] e-mailed me.”
There was something else compelling the Navy to act. While the lieutenant was pressing for the plebe’s identity, a colleague of Fleming’s filed a distraught memo. “If the allegations (below) against Professor Fleming are true, then it is probable that the English Department is harboring a predator who grooms young male midshipmen for future inappropriate relationships,” the memo began. It described an anonymous midshipman, who said that “Fleming frequently touched the students” while showing them how to wear clothes and a tie. A different instructor said he’d witnessed the same thing: Fleming led a student into the bathroom, and when the instructor followed them in, he saw Fleming adjusting clothes on the student, who appeared “submissive.” The instructor said the student came by Fleming’s office three days a week and spent 40 minutes there behind closed doors. The report shows the encounter had disturbed the instructor.
To Fleming, the predator insinuation smacked of desperation. “Am I coming on to the students? No. Am I screwing the students? No. And the amazing thing is that they seem to be going in the direction of saying I was making gay—I was coming on to the students in a gay way. That just blows my mind,” he says. “I mean, they’ve got to make up their minds. I’m talking about straight sex. Is it that I’m a straight pervert, or a gay pervert?”
Perhaps it’s simpler: In the 21st century, any school—public, private, military, civilian—is going to see a case like DeSantis’s as part of its duty to protect students.
“What’s the conceivable counter-action?” Schofield asks. “If I got a Speedo photo from any of my professors at Villanova—it doesn’t matter where you’re going to school right now, that’s f—ing wrong. So the Naval Academy sits back and just does nothing? He’s a tenured professor! He’s eccentric! He wears a bow tie! He’s that old, quirky, crazy Bruce!” Schofield went on. “Then what does the Navy look like in the eyes of the public?”
In the eyes of the court, though, the Navy was in the wrong. Administrative judge Mark Syska wrote that DeSantis had “severe credibility issues.” The aggrieved plebe seemed motivated by his grade—the “first C of his academic life”—and appeared to have “asked/cajoled/encouraged the other complaining midshipmen to file complaints.” Syska suggested that Fleming’s shirtless photo was “a dumb decision.” But the Academy couldn’t point to any rule that specifically prohibited his actions.
Stepping back, Syska described the events as “the perfect storm.” “An eighteen-year-old from a conservative, religious family who had only attended religious schools and only experienced academic success, versus the profane, irreverent, brutally critical (read admitted very tough grader) and highly theatrical [Fleming] had conflict written all over it.” (Through the Academy, DeSantis declined to comment.) The judge ordered Annapolis to reinstate its professor.
Fleming’s coup has made him a military celebrity. Officers inside the Pentagon know his name, Drew says. Once, on a visit to Guantánamo, a Navy captain approached her. “You go back and tell your professors, especially that Bruce Fleming, in your pretty little classrooms at the Academy what it’s really like out here in the Navy,” she recalls him saying.
The Academy hasn’t backed down. It appealed the decision. And though it returned Fleming to his title and his office, it has refused to let him teach. Fleming described it as a “glass box,” collecting a paycheck in an academic purgatory.
Late last year, I arranged to meet him there. By then, he’d been sending me dozens of e-mails and texts a day. Many were photos of himself with smiling students. Others were more in character. When I asked for the offending shots, a sequence of shirtless Flemings sprang into view on my phone within the span of a minute. He was undeniably fit. “F–k yeah !!!” he had appended. “Mentally morally and physically baby!”
At Annapolis, I found Fleming at his computer, the office mostly empty save for a framed cover of the Capital Gazette:naval academy teacher to be reinstated, including a photo of Fleming mugging in a Superman T-shirt.
Plopped in an armchair, the one reserved for one-on-one “life lessons,” I was unprepared for the volume and intensity of what unspooled. There was the implosion of Fleming’s first marriage; the lifelong transgender friend he’d supported after her transition; the diagnosis of his autistic daughter; the death of Fleming’s brother, a cellist in the Kennedy Center’s orchestra. “Damn straight, I told them to use condoms!” Fleming said. “I had a gay brother who died of AIDS.”
The week he was fired, Fleming was on an airplane with his wife and teenage sons when he had chest pains. Doctors diagnosed a heart attack. The likely cause was stress. When the firing came down just afterward, he said, it was a genuine surprise.
But then there was the ruling: especially sweet revenge. The pictures, the touching—“Absolutely I patted this kid on the back twice,” he summarized. “So. The f—. What. What are you alleging here?” He answered his own question. “I was charged with not being liked by the administration.”
Many colleagues quietly agreed. Unnerved by the whole affair, the Faculty Senate proposed fundamental reforms to the way Annapolis pursues misconduct claims. Drew, the English professor, chaired the committee. They proposed an overhaul: clear standards of evidence and curtailing the tendency to pull professors from the classroom. Their report detailed how faculty had come to fear the Academy’s “unpredictable, secretive, nearly unstoppable” investigations, based “solely on the claims of a student who has taken offense.”
For all their concern, though, faculty wouldn’t be donating to any Fleming Defense Fund. “He is so high-maintenance, and he doesn’t realize it,” Drew complained. The department had spent more time on Fleming than on all of its other personnel issues combined. “He said, ‘What, am I supposed to be grateful that they saved me from the Nazis?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you are!’ ” Drew said. “He’s got no sense of the harms he’s done to the English department—the hit that chairs have had to take in order to defend him.” And after all that, the school had done nothing more than acknowledge receipt of the faculty’s report and put it on the shelf.
Outside Bancroft Hall on the day I visited, as Fleming led me through the campus, I posed a crazy question: Had he ever considered apologizing—to students, say, or to Phillips?
Fleming planted both feet abruptly. “When would I have apologized to him?”
He was glowering. Not an apology in earnest, I assured him—God forbid—but simply for tactical value.
“But I have no idea what that means.”
I laid out a scenario: I care deeply about the midshipmen. Clearly, I missed the mark with some. I’ll keep this in mind for next time. Such little effort could do so much, I nudged, to neutralize the Navy’s portrait of an unfeeling, egomaniacal narcissist.
“I was already on the gallows with the noose around my neck. And you’re saying: Should I have been nicer to the guy who took me there or something?” he asked. “He immediately moved to trashing my reputation, to sending out e-mails to all my students saying this man is accused of doing very bad things, he sets up a blah blah blah, and then he f—ing fires me. And I’m supposed to say, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m really sorry I hurt this kid’s feelings’? No, I don’t think so.”
Anyway, “I’m this fly that has to be squashed,” he said. “You know, the ugly little guy is always going to—obviously I’m not ugly, and I’m not little, and I don’t give up. You know, I have to get on their nerves. If I were more squashable and—if I were a cripple or something, or not bright or whatever, I wouldn’t get on their nerves as much.”
The Academy’s appeal could take years, Fleming’s lawyer says, which may be just fine with the school. “Every supe that I’ve known,” Drew told me, “has wanted to be the one that could bring down Bruce Fleming.”
This article appears in the March 2020 issue of Washingtonian.