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Congressional panel to hold public meeting at USMMA

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy plebes pass in review

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy plebes pass in review during their Acceptance Day Ceremony and Parade at the Kings Point service academy on Aug. 8, 2015. The event marked transition of the class from their status as "plebes" -- what first-year students are called -- and formal acceptance into the Regiment of the Midshipmen and U.S. Navy Reserve. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s accreditation warning, suspension of students’ training aboard commercial vessels during the Sea Year and related efforts to address sexual misconduct both on campus and on ships will be up for discussion when the congressional board that makes recommendations on the school’s operations meets this month in Kings Point.

The 13-member advisory panel, called the Board of Visitors, has scheduled a public meeting on Nov. 14 starting at 10 a.m., according to a notice posted Wednesday in the Federal Register.

“I wanted to at least have one solid Board of visitors meeting before the end of the year,” Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), whose term as board chairman expires Dec. 31, said in an interview Wednesday.

King said he hopes to get a status report from the academy’s administrators, as well as federal officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and its agency, the U.S. Maritime Administration, on a timeline for reinstating the Sea Year, when students work on government and commercial ships.

“The most immediate issue is, ‘When is the Sea Year going to be restored?’ and then there’s the questions on why the Middle States report missed five of the standards,” King said, referring to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s finding that the academy failed to meet five of 14 benchmarks required to remain in good standing.

The Board of Visitors’ meeting will be open to the public, with seating on a first-come basis, according to the notice in the Federal Register. Those wishing to attend must show photo identification to gain access to the meeting, to be held in the Schuyler Otis Bland Memorial Library on campus.

The panel includes 11 members of Congress, eight of whom are appointed by other lawmakers. The five others either are members of Congress or other individuals appointed by the president.

The service academy, made a permanent institution by the federal government in 1956, has been under scrutiny since June, when Middle States, its accrediting agency, put the school on warning. The nongovernmental commission’s report cited lapses in governance, institutional assessments and financial planning.

USMMA has two years to correct those findings and will need to show accreditors it has made progress by March 1.

Also in June, the academy’s administrators abruptly suspended the Sea Year program, citing the need for better training and policies to deal with sexual misconduct aboard the ships. The program is a key element of the curricula, with students — called midshipmen on campus and cadets while at sea — serving on federal and commercial vessels and gaining valued work and travel experience.

The Sea Year was partially reinstated in July, with students allowed to serve on state and federal vessels but not commercial ships. A group of alumni and parents is lobbying to have the program fully reinstated.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who last month proposed legislation to better report incidents of sexual harassment and assault at the academy, will send a representative to attend the meeting, her office said.

At a July Board of Visitors meeting, the academy’s advisory board released a report on sexual misconduct showing that nearly two-thirds of women and 10 percent of men at the 900-student school said they had been sexually harassed on campus and at sea during the 2014-15 school year.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), who also serves on the Board of Visitors, cannot attend the November meeting but will send a representative, a spokesman said.

Israel, in a statement, said, “It can’t be stressed enough: The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy must follow a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to sexual assault and sexual harassment. That’s why I strongly support the work of outside experts to examine the culture at the academy and ensure that it employs policies that address this issue.”

The Transportation Department last month announced the hiring of a Virginia-based contractor, Logistics Management Institute, to perform “an independent cultural assessment” of the academy.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has confirmed his attendance at the November meeting, King said. Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) and Reps. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) and Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told Newsday on Wednesday they are unable to attend.

Calls and email messages to other board members were not returned.

A message Wednesday to the academy’s Office of External Affairs was not returned.

No quorum is required for the Board of Visitors to meet and no votes will be taken, King said.

With Scott Eidler

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