Parents and alumni of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and leaders of the commercial shipping industry urged a congressional panel Monday to swiftly implement sexual misconduct policies, fully restore the Sea Year training program and reverse a warning by the institution’s academic accreditor.
The forceful pleas came during a two-hour meeting on the academy’s Kings Point campus, convened by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the outgoing chairman of the 13-member Board of Visitors.
“The U.S. maritime industry sees the continuation of the Sea Year suspension as an existential threat to the academy, and by extension, to the U.S.-flagged deep-sea fleet,” said Captain T. Christian Spain, assistant vice president for government affairs for American Maritime Officers, the largest union representing merchant marine officers on board both commercial and government vessels.
The academy needs to address failings in leadership, strategic planning, resource allocation and staffing, among other issues to stay in compliance with its nongovernmental accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. USMMA officials have two years to address the findings in a June report that showed the school failed to comply with five of 14 quality standards. A progress report is due March 1.
The Sea Year, an important part of the school’s curriculum, is when students gain work experience aboard commercial and federal vessels in national and international waters.
King said federal officials had so far provided only “insufficient information” regarding the Middle States report. He said his office has fielded calls from families of students interested in applying to the academy who are uncertain about the school’s future.
Federal and academy leaders reassured the campus’ community that the challenges facing the academy would not lead to its closure, as accreditation problems sometimes have.
“We have no plans or intention to shut it down,” Paul N. Jaenichen Sr., administrator of the Maritime Administration with the Department of Transportation, said at the meeting. “We still have work to do.”
Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy’s superintendent, detailed measures in place to address the Middle States report and the partial Sea Year suspension, including enhancing the campus office that deals with sexual assault and sexual harassment.
“While we face challenges in certain areas, so do other institutions of higher education and so do other federal service academies,” Helis said at the meeting. “We will rise to these challenges and continue to serve the nation from Kings Point.”
Michael J. Rodriguez, deputy maritime administrator with the Department of Transportation, told officials at the meeting the agency has developed seven benchmarks for handling sexual misconduct the commercial shipping industry must meet in order for students, known as midshipmen on campus or cadets at sea, can train aboard their vessels. The Board of Visitors at its July meeting released a report commissioned by the Department of Transportation, in which nearly two-thirds of women and 10 percent of men said they had been sexually harassed on campus and at sea during the 2014-15 school year.
In response to the reports of sexual misconduct, both the department and the academy’s alumni association have hired companies to assess the academy’s culture.
Capt. James F. Tobin, president of the academy’s alumni group, called the suspension of the Sea Year a “radical decision.”
“We believe before making such a disruptive move, a move with such unforeseeable, far-reaching consequences, decision-makers would have benefited from an open discussion of facts and perspectives,” Tobin said.
Tobin said he sympathized with the academy’s position and said “one incident is one too many.”
But, he added, “we have to be able to tackle multiple challenges simultaneously.” Once the Sea Year is restored, he said, the alumni foundation and academy’s leadership can work together to solve the accreditation problem.
Susan Wagner McKenna, a national vice chairwoman of the USMMA National Parents Association, said the current training on state and federal vessels is “substandard,” with students “packed” onto ships.
She pointed out that students from state maritime schools train aboard the same commercial vessels on which midshipmen are now banned.
“We are concerned that the DOT and MARAD [the Maritime Administration] may be using the issue of sexual assault and harassment to distract attention from the more comprehensive problem — that is the threatened accreditation of the academy,” said McKenna, whose father, sister and daughter are academy graduates.
McKenna, quoting her daughter, a 2014 graduate, said, “I was tired of seeing my friends and myself characterized as a predator.”
Jaenichen was jeered by members of the audience when he told the panel, “The absence of data and the absence of reporting does not mean there’s an absence of issue aboard the vessels.”
After the meeting, a female midshipman said she felt embarrassed that some alums and parents appeared to be more concerned with quickly restoring the Sea Year rather than focusing on the accusations of sexual misconduct.
“I’m embarrassed to be a part of this school community right now,” said the midshipman, who spoke only under the condition of anonymity for fear of being retaliated against by her peers. She said she supported the administration’s efforts in taking the time to assess the culture at the academy. “It’s offensive for them (alumni and parents association) to not support what seems to be such a clear cut issue.”