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New marine academy chief talks of reform

Rear Admiral James A. Helis, the new superintendent

Rear Admiral James A. Helis, the new superintendent of the United States Merchant Marine Acadamy in his office at the Academy in Kings Point. (Aug. 1, 2012) Credit: Johnny Milano

The new superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy said Wednesday that sweeping managerial changes, improved campus infrastructure and efforts to buy a new vessel are under way at the Kings Point school.

Rear Adm. James A. Helis, who was sworn in Monday as the academy's 12th leader, said addressing a federal watchdog report about earlier financial improprieties at the school is "an item of emphasis for me."

A new position of deputy superintendent has been created, and the person who fills it will oversee several administrative offices, including a new office for risk management to ensure greater financial accountability, Helis said in a telephone media conference detailing a broad, five-year vision for the service academy.

"We needed this plan because these are ambitious goals," Helis said. "To reach these new heights, we have to start working on them now."

The school is tweaking its curriculum to reflect the needs of a changing maritime industry. Helis said training courses will come online for midshipmen and midshipwomen to work in brown-waters operations to support oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. New global cultural classes will be offered for the trimester that sophomores spend abroad.

Officials are close to finalizing the purchase of a new training vessel, Helis said, but he declined to provide details. The school's ship -- the T/V Kings Pointer, an auxiliary ocean tug -- is on loan to Texas A&M University.

About 950 students at the academy train to operate commercial ships and serve as active-duty officers in one of the armed services on the 82-acre waterfront campus.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in early July showed the school had fulfilled three-quarters of 47 recommendations to fix a system that misused funds. The GAO report was an update of a 2009 probe that discovered the school overcharged students on fees, had inadequate financial reporting measures and handled money in violation of federal standards.

The federal Department of Transportation said 99 percent of the $8.1 million in fees had been refunded to the overcharged students.

For the 2012 academic year, the maritime academy received $85 million from the federal government -- a record high, school officials said. Congress has not yet appropriated funds for 2013.

Another GAO report detailed $300 million in infrastructure repairs needed at the campus, which dates to 1942. Repairs to a campus water main began on Monday; a popular recreation center, Land Hall, will reopen next month, Helis said.

The new superintendent also said he and school officials plan to better communicate with stakeholders, including faculty, students, alumni, maritime industry experts and the surrounding community. The strategic plan he released included feedback from about 800 stakeholders, Helis said.

Jim Tobin, president of the academy's alumni association, endorsed the initiative.

"The alumni, parents and friends will all support the strategic plan and do our best to ensure that it becomes a reality at this very important time in the academy's history," he said.

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