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U.S. Merchant Marine Academy issued warning by accrediting agency

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, located at Kings

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, located at Kings Point, graduated 229 merchant marine and military officers at its 80th commencement ceremony on June 18, 2016. Credit: Benjamin Benson

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has been issued a warning that its academic accreditation may be in jeopardy, according to a report by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

The nongovernmental agency, based in Philadelphia, found the Kings Point academy did not comply with the requirements to meet five of 14 benchmarks, including governance, institutional assessments and financial planning.

The report highlighted one student program for special scrutiny and improvement: the Sea Year, when midshipmen spend the equivalent of an academic year interning on merchant marine ships, stationed in locations worldwide.

School officials last month suspended that program because industry professionals were not providing a safe environment aboard the ships for midshipmen who train at sea. Midshipmen returning from the Sea Year experience have revealed episodes of improper behavior including bullying, coercion, and harassment, a spokesman for the academy said.

“The academy appreciates MSCHE’s candid, thoughtful, and thorough work. We are committed to the process of continued improvement to accomplish the academy’s mission,” Superintendent Rear Adm. James A. Helis said in a statement. “I am confident that USMMA will meet the requirements and recommendations.”

The school remains accredited while on warning — the lowest of the commission’s noncompliance actions — and has up to two years to reverse the ruling. Middle States issued the report after its June 23 meeting and notified the school’s officials in a letter dated June 24. The report and the letter are available on the school’s website.

The federal service academy graduates licensed merchant marine officers. Its current enrollment is 932, and most are male. The female population is just under 20 percent, school officials said.

The commission’s report said the school must “take steps to build a climate of mutual trust and respect on campus and during the Sea Year.”

Thirty-three students were scheduled to leave for their Sea Year last month before the academy suspended the program on June 15.

Concerns over the safety of midshipmen during Sea Year and on campus already have driven changes at the academy.

The school in 2012 took steps to promote sexual assault awareness and prevention, including a training program that begins during the first week midshipmen arrive on campus and continues throughout their four years at the institution.

The program established procedures that include: confidential reporting using trained volunteer victim advocates, a survey completed by midshipmen, and focus groups to measure progress and inform program improvements.

A group from the academy on June 24 participated in an industrywide meeting held at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., that focused on industry culture, sexual assault and sexual harassment awareness and prevention efforts, best practices and reporting protocols, officials said.

A monitoring report on the progress the school has made toward compliance is due to Middle States on March 1. A small team of commission representatives will visit the academy to verify the institution’s efforts.

The Middle States evaluation team also found achievements in the following areas: admissions; achievement of the licensing component of the institutional mission; the advisory board’s assessment reports; the Sea Year; progress on developing a formal and integrated leader development program; and assistance provided to department and course-level assessment.

The academy first was accredited in 1949. The institution is the most diverse in its history, with graduates passing the four-day U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine licensing exam on their first try in record numbers, school officials said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not provide the reason that the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point was suspending its Sea Year program and misstated who many graduates were passing the licensing exam on the first try.

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