Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan in an official portrait in July 2018. She has...

Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan in an official portrait in July 2018. She has been appointed to become the 14th superintendent for the U.S. Merchant Marine academy in Kings Point.  Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has appointed its first female superintendent, a move that comes as the Kings Point school continues to combat allegations of sexual misconduct that prompted the recent suspension of its Sea Year program for the second time in five years, Newsday has learned.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan will become the Merchant Marine Academy’s 14th superintendent, replacing Vice Adm. Jack Buono, who announced his retirement in March.

Nunan retired earlier this year as the Coast Guard’s deputy for personnel readiness, where she oversaw recruitment, training, support and retention of all active duty, reserve, and civilian personnel. She also supervised the Coast Guard Academy and served on its board of trustees.

“Rear Admiral Joanna Nunan is the right leader at the right time for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy,” said Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which operates the school. “Her years of experience as a senior military leader — including command at sea — have prepared Rear Admiral Nunan to shape the future of the USMMA and help ensure the safety and success of its extraordinary midshipmen.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has appointed its first female superintendent, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joanna Nunan.
  • It's a move that comes as the Kings Point school continues to combat allegations of sexual misconduct that prompted the recent suspension of its Sea Year program for the second time in five years.
  • Nunan retired earlier this year as the Coast Guard’s deputy for personnel readiness. She also supervised the Coast Guard Academy and served on its board of trustees.

The DOT did not make Nunan available for an interview.

Buttigieg and Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg are expected to make the announcement on Saturday at the Secretary’s Cup college football game between USMMA and the Coast Guard.

USMMA, which trains men and women to be midshipmen working on deep sea vessels and in the military, is one of five federal service academies and the first to admit women.

A native of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Nunan, whose grandfather served 30 years in the U.S. Navy, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1987. She also received a master’s degree in business administration from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and obtained three Coast Guard merchant mariner licenses.

Nunan spent more than nine years at sea in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Western Pacific, including commanding two vessels, and served as a commander in the Honolulu, Hawaii sector and in the Ninth Coast Guard District, which encompasses the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaways region.

During the Obama administration, Nunan, a married mother of two daughters, served as military adviser to then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and as military assistant to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

In 2019, she became the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for human resources, spearheading efforts to expand diversity and inclusion in the ranks while increasing the retention of women in the service.

Nunan also ran the Coast Guard’s Health, Safety, and Work-Life programs, directing policies addressing sexual assault while serving as a member of the Sexual Assault Prevention, Response, and Recovery Committee.

“Rear Admiral Nunan is uniquely prepared to lead and strengthen USMMA on every front,” said Maritime Administrator Ann Phillips. “She understands both the critical role USMMA plays in our economic and national security and the organizational transformations that are essential to ensuring USMMA prepares students in a safe and respectful environment to excel in a maritime industry undergoing rapid change.”

The Merchant Marine Academy has struggled for years to adopt and implement policies curtailing sexual harassment and misconduct in its ranks.

In 2016, reports of sexual misconduct forced the first USMMA suspension of the Sea Year program, in which midshipmen are required to complete more than 300 days of work on commercial vessels in international waters.

But the program resumed in 2017 after USMMA, Maersk and other shipping companies enacted new “zero tolerance” policies to protect midshipmen from sexual assault and harassment, along with new training procedures.

The following year, a former academy soccer player filed a $5 million federal lawsuit against seven then-seniors on the team and three former coaches, claiming he was verbally, physically and sexually abused. He alleged that the conduct went unchecked and, in some cases, was encouraged by coaches. The DOT paid the victim $1.4 million in a settlement.

Allegations of sexual misconduct emerged again last year when then-USMMA cadet Hope Hicks of Georgia disclosed — anonymously at the time — on a maritime whistleblower website that an engineering supervisor 40 years her senior plied her with alcohol, waited until she was incapacitated and raped her on a Maersk commercial ship in 2019.

When Hicks, who was 19 at the time and the only woman onboard the ship, confronted the supervisor, he told her "no one is ever going to believe you," she said. Hicks' disclosure prompted DOT to again suspend the Sea Year program.

Hicks and another female midshipman, who alleged she experienced extreme sexual harassment and unwanted touching from a Maersk electrician while on board the same vessel in 2021, filed a lawsuit against the international shipping giant in June. The second woman said in the suit she was so frightened of being raped that she slept in a locked bathroom holding a knife. 

Earlier this month, a cargo ship captain, accused by Coast Guard investigators of raping a female USMMA cadet and attempting to assault another after plying both with spiked alcoholic drinks, surrendered his mariner's license, making him ineligible to work at sea.

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