A popular U.S. Naval Academy professor says he was unfairly temporarily suspended from teaching after two students complained about his criticism of the school’s sexual assault policies.
Bruce Fleming, an English professor at the academy, was prohibited from entering his classroom or contacting his students on Sept. 16 while the school’s English department conducted an investigation into the complaints, which he claimed were baseless. He was permitted to resume teaching on Sept. 18.
"The investigation was conducted in a way that was meant for due process for both the students and the professor, and when it was completed the decision was made that professor Fleming could return to class on Wednesday," said Cmdr. John Schofield, academy spokesman.
Fleming said he is still not sure why the investigation was conducted and that no formal charges were ever filed against him.
Vice academic dean Boyd Waite initially presented professor Mark McWilliams, chairman of the English department, with a letter barring Fleming from the classroom and contact with students, Fleming said.
After McWilliams refused to sign the letter, the administration presented him with two options: either initiate an internal investigation of Fleming within the department or allow a "lengthy, nasty" investigation run by the "military side," Fleming said.
McWilliams chose the first option. Fleming said he thought he was placed on administrative leave.
However, McWilliams suggested to him that he "voluntarily" decided not to teach his courses and agreed to have other English professors fill in for him and conduct a "fishing expedition" by surveying his students for complaints, Fleming said.
Fleming said he does not see it that way. He said he was treated like an "elementary school teacher [who] has been fondling students."
"The Naval Academy was pulling the strings at all points. They had a loaded gun to my head and said to my department chairman ‘pull the trigger’ and he said ‘no,’" Fleming told the Washington Free Beacon.
"They made it look like an English department mission, but it wasn’t."
The two female students, who dropped Fleming’s course, initially filed complaints with the academy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO). The office dismissed them because they were not related to a sexual assault case, Fleming said. The students’ complaints were also denied at the academy’s Equal Employment Opportunity office.
That is when the administration got involved. Fleming said the students, who help facilitate seminars for SAPRO, "acted completely inappropriately with no judgment whatsoever" by not starting with the lowest level and expressing their concerns to him and McWilliams.
The deans’ decision to then pursue an investigation after the complaints were denied at other offices was "completely unpardonable," he added.
Additionally, 95 percent of the documents in a case folder provided to McWilliams by Dean Waite pertained to Fleming’s criticism of the academy’s sexual assault prevention policies. Fleming said this suggested, "Criticism of SAPRO itself was a SAPRO violation."
The documents also included Xerox copies of notes from one of the students about a poem, "Kong Looks Back on His Tryout With the Bears," by William Trowbridge, which Fleming used in his creative writing class.
The notes allege that Fleming made a racially tinged comparison between the fictional King Kong, who is depicted as a football player in the poem, and three former Navy football players accused of sexually assaulting a female student at a party. The student also accused Fleming in the notes of referencing oral sex through the poem.
Fleming said he likes to discuss what is on students’ minds before starting class. SAPRO training came up that day, prompting Fleming to note that he found it interesting how the responsibility to report incidences had shifted from complainants to third-party onlookers. He then turned to the poem, which was already on the syllabus for the day.
The poem, whose subject is the famous oversized gorilla, is not meant to have racial overtones, he said.
"Kong eats women like candy" in the poem, he said, which is also not intended to refer to oral sex. Fleming uses the poem to discuss the mechanics of poetry and as a metaphor for the necessity of men to channel their aggression in positive ways.
Fleming, who has taught at the academy since 1987, has been a prominent critic of the school’s sexual assault prevention policies. He says stringent rules at the academy against alcohol and consensual sex are often counterproductive.
Sexual assault policies for all military branches have received heightened scrutiny in recent months from the media and lawmakers due to a purported rise in sexual assault cases.
However, some experts say sexual assault rates have declined in recent years and question the reliability of the surveys the military uses to formulate their sexual assault policies.
Fleming has filed complaints with both the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and Faculty Senate, accusing Deans Andrew Phillips and Waite of treating the investigation like a SAPRO case—even after SAPRO rejected the complaints—and exposing him to "public humiliation." The administration offered the two students anonymity, which is only an option in SAPRO cases, he said.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said in an email that she views Fleming’s efforts as an attempt to hold the administration accountable. She noted findings in the most recent military SAPRO report that the number of unfounded sexual assault cases increased by 34 percent between 2009 and 2012.
"There is no evidence that SAPRO is doing anything about this problem, so prof. Fleming's push-back may be the only way to restore some balance and respect for due process," she said.
Fleming has clashed with the administration before over his outspoken views regarding academy policies. He won a legal settlement in 2011 against the academy after filing a complaint alleging that top officials denied him a raise recommended by his supervisor because of his criticism of the school’s race-conscious admissions policies.
Schofield, the academy spokesman, said discussing the details of the investigation into Fleming’s teaching practices would be "inappropriate" but added that any further complaints would be treated in a similar manner.
"Our primary focus is on due process," he said.