Academy blocks book signing

Teacher-writer critical of naval school is barred from event at campus store

October 14, 2005|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

The U.S. Naval Academy has refused to permit a professor who has been critical of its admissions policy to hold a book signing at the campus bookstore -- a practice regularly allowed for other faculty -- citing a seldom-applied "conflict of interest" rule that governs federal employees.

Bruce Fleming, an English professor and author of Annapolis Autumn, said he believes the decision is unfair.

The book, published last month by New Press, a nonprofit publishing house, includes several jabs at academy traditions, including a sharp critique of its admissions process.

Fleming, who served on the academy's admissions board, criticizes in the book the school's practice of accepting "set-asides" -- minorities, athletes and enlisted men and women -- who are less qualified academically than other students.

When he made a similar argument in a magazine article this year, he received an unusual rebuke from the academy's superintendent.

Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, spokesman for the academy, said the decision had nothing to do with the content of Fleming's book or past controversies.

"The request to hold a book signing was not approved because of the appearance of a possible conflict of interest given Professor Fleming's use of his official position for private gain," Gibbons said yesterday.

Gibbons said that book signing requests by faculty are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and that in this case a Navy legal official decided this was a clear "ethics no-no."

Donald F. Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, said applying federal ethics guidelines to book earnings by professors raises several thorny questions.

The rules essentially say that federal employees can't privately profit from anything they do for the government.

Because of the rules, professors like Fleming can't be paid royalties for publishing unless they write books on their own time, Kettl said.

But making that distinction is almost impossible for professors, he said, because most spend many private hours doing work-related tasks such as reading and discussing issues.

"On the one hand, it makes it possible always to claim there's a conflict of interest," Kettl said. "On the other, it makes it difficult to prove that some work wasn't done while on the government's payroll."

Publish or perish

Muddying the water even more is the mandate that professors, including those at the Naval Academy, publish research, Kettl said.

The book is a collection of wry essays on academy life, recollections of teaching midshipmen, dealing with military officers sometimes out of touch with the literature about which Fleming lectures, and working in an environment drenched in tradition.

Fleming, who has taught at the academy for almost 20 years, alternates between sardonic criticisms of the academy and a fondness for the midshipmen.

But the most controversial critique is one he has already leveled: that academy admissions are severely flawed.

"It's bad enough, for me anyway, to think that people get into Yale and Williams because the baseball coach needs a shortstop," Fleming wrote in the book. "But it's simply unacceptable at the Naval Academy."

Of the minority-set asides, Fleming wrote: "Were we doing this to rectify past injustices? Why should the child of Ghanaian immigrants who had never suffered from slavery be classified as `African-American'? Why should a rich kid with a grandmother from Puerto Rico be given preference as Hispanic?"

Rebuke by Rempt

A similar critique, published this year in the Naval Institute's Proceedings, prompted a private rebuke from Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent.

"Your action has served to needlessly criticize the Academy, our admissions board, and [all] midshipmen -- past, present and future -- who have earned their admission into the Academy, and are serving successfully as officers," Rempt wrote. "I would have expected a much more professional approach."

Fleming said Rempt's letter was out of touch.

"When we have a superintendent who writes an official chain-of-command letter disapproving of the content of what a tenured civilian faculty member has published, it doesn't look to me as though he's read my job description," Fleming said.

Gibbons said the academy's commitment to academic freedom should not be in doubt: Fleming has been allowed to publish the book, and the campus bookstore is selling it.

But Fleming said he had to push for that, too, after he learned it was being sold at the United States Military Academy's bookstore in West Point, N.Y.

The midshipmen's bookstore eventually began to sell it and has since had to re-order, Fleming said.

"My wife read the book and thought it showed a rather sweet view of the academy," Fleming said.

"But," he added, "the fact is that if you have zero tolerance for anything other than complete smiley-faces 24-7, you might find it a little controversial."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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