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USMMA leader will move to senior post in Washington, D.C.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, superintendent of the

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, during an interview in his office on Nov. 28, 2017. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis will leave his position as superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy to take a top job at the U.S. Maritime Administration in Washington, D.C., the agency that oversees the federal service academy in Kings Point, officials announced Thursday.

Helis, who became USMMA’s 12th superintendent in July 2012, will remain at the school’s helm during an extensive search for a new leader, according to a news release from the Maritime Administration, or MARAD.

A change-of-command ceremony is planned for later this summer, the release said.

Helis’ new position will be special assistant to MARAD Administrator Mark Buzby, a retired Navy rear admiral who is a 1979 alumnus of the Merchant Marine Academy. President Donald Trump named Buzby to lead the federal agency last June and the Senate then confirmed him.

“During this transition period, it is our priority to find an exceptional person to lead the Academy into the future, while still maintaining a strong and effective organization,” MARAD’s statement said.

“Change is welcome, and it’s always good to have some change,” said Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who serves on the 17-member USMMA Board of Visitors, the academy’s congressional oversight panel. “We need to keep the Merchant Marine Academy moving forward, and I want to thank Admiral Helis for his service.”

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), past chairman of the Board of Visitors, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The news comes just weeks before Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is to deliver the keynote address at the academy’s 82nd commencement on June 16.

Helis was an outside pick to lead the academy, having served 30 years in the Army after his 1979 graduation from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. He led the First Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, and the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion in Columbia, South Carolina. He had a rocky relationship with the school’s powerful alumni group. Many of its members had protested his lack of maritime credentials.

Helis presided over a period of turmoil unlike any other at the 75-year-old academy, seeking to resolve yearslong concerns over the school’s handling of sexual misconduct.

Reforms under his administration included training programs and the addition of a “restricted” reporting process that allows students to report incidents without triggering the involvement of law enforcement.

The school still has much to do in its prevention of and response to sexual assault, according to a March 28 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General. “Critical gaps remain in the comprehensive prevention and evaluation,” according to the report, which also cited the academy’s “lack of full compliance with its procedures.”

When Helis arrived, the academy also was under pressure to fix its infrastructure and address issues of leadership. A federal report detailed $300 million in needed capital infrastructure improvements. Three years earlier, in 2009, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found “numerous instances of improper and questionable sources and uses of funds by the Academy and its affiliated organizations.”

The academy received record funding to fix the crippling infrastructure during the Obama administration as Helis oversaw multimillion-dollar renovations to piers, dormitories, and other structures. In recent years, the campus’ dining facilities and dormitories were fully renovated, the crumbling Mallory Pier was restored, and in 2014 the academy christened a new training vessel, the 176-foot Kings Pointer.

“During his six-year assignment as Superintendent, Helis led the response to many complex issues, including financial and management issues which had threatened USMMA’s accreditation,” MARAD’s statement said. “Today, the Academy remains fully accredited and the student body’s educational experience has been enhanced by much needed improvements to the facilities where Midshipmen learn, live, eat, and study.”

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