BALTIMORE – An outspoken critic of the U.S. Naval Academy’s admissions policies has settled a complaint that alleged he was wrongly denied a pay raise for exercising his First Amendment rights.
English professor Bruce Fleming said Wednesday that he was satisfied with the settlement. But he said nothing has been done to address his concerns about the Annapolis academy’s academic standards, which he said are deteriorating because of a push by college leaders to increase the number of minority midshipmen and to field competitive teams in football and other sports.
Fleming wrote an op-ed column in Annapolis’ Capital newspaper in 2009 in which he claimed the academy used a two-tiered admissions process to boost the number of minority midshipmen. He wrote that the admissions process was “probably unconstitutional” and that the academy rejected qualified white candidates in favor of less-qualified minorities. Publication of the letter came four years after Fleming made similar claims in a military magazine, drawing a rebuke from the then-superintendent.
Academy leaders have been vocal about increasing diversity among midshipmen as part of an effort to make the racial makeup of the Navy’s officer corps more closely resemble its enlisted ranks. Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, said in 2009 that “diversity is the No. 1 priority” at the academy, where a black student did not graduate until 1949.
The academy has seen big jumps in minority applications and admissions in recent years. Minority students made up 35 percent of the freshman class in 2009, up from 28 percent the year before.
Fleming, who served on the academy’s admissions board in 2002 and 2003, wrote that minorities are admitted with worse grades and lower SAT scores than what is deemed acceptable for whites, “and are given a pro forma nomination to make it legit.” Applicants to the academy must be nominated by a member of Congress or another federal or military official.
Academy leaders have denied Fleming’s claims, arguing that the student body has become more diverse without compromising academic standards.
A few months after his op-ed piece was published, Fleming said he was denied a standard merit pay raise that had been recommended by his immediate supervisor. He was also given a disciplinary warning letter.
He filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency charged with investigating claims involving government employees, on First Amendment grounds. The office and the Naval Academy announced Wednesday that the complaint has been settled. Terms of the settlement were confidential, and the academy did not admit wrongdoing.
“No federal employee should fear that he will be penalized on the job for expressing an opinion on controversial matters of public concern,” Associate Special Counsel William E. Reukauf said in a statement.
The dispute was “resolved to the satisfaction of both parties,” the academy said in a statement. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, an academy spokesman, declined to address Fleming’s criticism of the admissions process, saying the academy had refuted his assertions in the past.
The academy admits less than 10 percent of its applicants, and the class of 2014 included the most applications in the school’s history, as well as the largest number of applications from minorities and women.
But Fleming told the Associated Press that midshipmen who struggle are given easier coursework or unlimited tutoring, breeding resentment among students who expected to get a first-rate education along with their military training. The environment is particularly toxic for talented black midshipmen, he said, because they are perceived by some classmates as less-qualified.
“My students are disillusioned beyond belief,” Fleming said. “They see people being coddled for political reasons or racial reasons or sports reasons.”
The result, he said, is a watered-down officer corps that weakens the military. Navy leaders haven’t fully articulated their reasoning for wanting more minority officers, he said.
“What I hear is, what the enlisted people want is an officer who won’t get them killed,” he said.
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