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Accrediting agency: USMMA shows improvement but still on warning

Vickery Gate, near the entrance to the U.S.

Vickery Gate, near the entrance to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point remains on warning by its academic accrediting agency even as the school has improved all but one of the five quality benchmarks it failed last year, according to a status update made public Thursday.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which initially placed the federal service academy on warning one year ago, acted on the school’s accreditation at its June 22 meeting.

The final standard the academy must address is related to institutional planning and the allocation of its resources, the independent, nongovernmental agency said in a brief statement of its decision posted on its website.

“The Academy is currently taking steps to address this final deficiency, specifically by adopting a Strategy, Execution, and Assessment process to guide each fiscal year planning cycle, thus ensuring that USMMA’s spending aligns with its strategic goals. We are confident the new processes will resolve the final deficiency,” said Kim Strong, spokeswoman for the Maritime Administration, the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that operates the Merchant Marine Academy.

The academy’s leadership must submit a monitoring report to Middle States showing progress by Sept. 1, which will be followed by a Middle States team visit to the campus later that month.

The academy remains fully accredited while on warning. Institutions placed on warning have up to two years to reverse the decision, according to Middle States guidelines. After the warning status is removed, Middle States’ next accreditation evaluation visit would be in the 2024-25 academic year.

USMMA was the first federal service academy in recent history found to be out of compliance by its accrediting agency, and was lacking in five of 14 standards. Middle States initially placed the academy on warning at its June 23, 2016 meeting, citing issues of governance, leadership, financial planning and student support services.

At the time, an integral component of the academy’s curriculum, the Sea Year training program where students spend 18 months on deep sea vessels, was highlighted for special scrutiny and improvement. That caused the first-ever suspension of the program, because students revealed episodes of improper behavior — including bullying, coercion and harassment — as occurring during the Sea Year.

A Newsday report in January showed the academy has struggled for more than a decade to adequately prevent and respond to complaints of sexual misconduct, according to a review of public documents and student interviews.

Such problems have persisted. Earlier this month, allegations of misconduct involving several members of the men’s soccer team prompted a Transportation Department investigation and caused the academy’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, to suspend the NCAA Division III soccer program and bar seven players from graduation. Those players subsequently sued Helis and the school. A hearing in the case is scheduled July 6 in federal court in Central Islip.

Middle States spokesman Richard Pokrass said Thursday that the incident regarding the athletes did not factor into the commission’s June 22 action.

That the four other requirements satisfied accreditors was perceived as a major improvement by the academy’s leadership and local lawmakers who sit on the school’s Board of Visitors, a congressional advisory board. Those requirements were tied to combating sexual assault and sexual harassment, and to restoring management authorities to Helis.

“Overall, it’s a very good day for the Merchant Marine Academy, but they can’t let down their guard either,” said Rep. Peter King, chairman of the Board of Visitors.

King (R-Seaford) noted the progress the academy’s leadership made over the last year in addressing the problem of the accreditation.

“Significant questions seem to be addressed. The one still remaining is on the five-year plan, which is mostly procedural,” he said. “They [academy leadership] acknowledged that it has to be done and are working through it. In all of the significant issues, including the sexual assault and sexual harassment, the academy has taken steps to improve.”

Rep. Tom Suozzi, newly appointed to the board, expressed cautious optimism.

“While this report shows the Merchant Marine Academy has made some progress, I am still concerned about its direction and will be introducing legislation to make sure these incidents are handled properly,” said Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes the Kings Point campus. “We must turn the page on this recent history and all work together to ensure the academy remains the premier institution of maritime education in this country.”

Capt. James Tobin, president of the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation, said more work needs to be done.

“Anybody who cares about the institution knows that the restoration of full accreditation status is absolutely critical,” Tobin said.

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