The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a fixture in Kings Point for nearly 70 years, is in upheaval with an empty superintendent's chair, deteriorating facilities and a proposed budget cut.
A series of recent developments has some alumni and parents of students worried about the future of the school, which trains men and women to operate commercial ships and serve as active-duty officers in one of the armed services.
"I think the state of the school is confusion and uncertainty," said Charles J. Hill, 68, a 1965 graduate and chairman of the USMMA Alumni Association & Foundation.
Founded in 1943 after several maritime disasters, the mission of the school, one of the five U.S. service academies, remains to provide trained deck or engineering officers to serve on private ships or military vessels. Graduates of the four-year program leave Kings Point with Coast Guard licenses and Naval Reserve appointments.
Federal authorities say they are committed to the school and working to improve operations and facilities.
"Almost from the very first day I took this job I told my people . . . the Merchant Marine Academy was something I wanted to make the jewel of the academies," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department oversees the academy.
In the past five months, federal officials have removed the superintendent, sent the academy's namesake training ship to a college in Texas, and announced the closure of a widely used continuing education school within the academy.
Deteriorating facilities at Kings Point need $300 million in repairs, according to a 2010 report. Its popular catering facility is to be turned over to private contractors. And last month, President Barack Obama's proposed 2013 budget cut academy funding by nearly 10 percent to $77 million.
Responded to 9/11 disaster
The midshipmen were among the first to arrive at docks near Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, to transport supplies and emergency workers throughout New York Harbor and provide emergency medical support. Astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is a graduate.
The academy has survived other periods of upheaval, said Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, author of the 2007 book "In Peace and War" about the academy.
"You need a skilled merchant marine to make the national economy work" he said. "You need a skilled merchant marine to assist with national defense when a war breaks out."
But time and a lack of funding have taken a toll on the academy, where most campus buildings date to just before or during World War II.
A 2010 report by the academy's Capital Improvements Advisory Panel details $300 million in needed renovation and replacement projects, including $60 million for academic buildings and more than $51 million for barracks. In January, a barracks carbon monoxide leak sent 39 students to the hospital.
"Several structures, including the Academy's piers, have become unserviceable, while others have required urgent repairs to prevent further significant deterioration or safety hazards," the report concluded.
LaHood's first visit to the academy after being appointed by Obama in 2009 was by boat from Manhattan. "I saw the condition of some of the [facilities] on the water," LaHood said. "I was obviously aghast."
Capital improvement funds
The trip prompted him to focus more attention on the school, something LaHood said previous secretaries had not undertaken. Since 2009, the academy has received $300 million in federal appropriations, $61 million of which was for capital improvements. Renovation of the main mess hall, which has not been updated since the 1940s and has no kitchen air-conditioning, is to start this summer.
The Transportation Department last month also started looking at the school's future needs -- academic and financial. Closing is not an option, LaHood said.
"The academy is facing a lot of challenges and we need to be smart and efficient and prioritize which challenges we address first," said Meghan A. Keck, deputy director of public affairs for the Department of Transportation.
Some alumni are skeptical, citing recent actions.
"Graduates are asking me all the time, 'What's going on in Washington?' I say, 'I don't know,' " Hill said. "All these things appear to be negative."
Many alumni and parents have been reluctant to talk publicly about their concerns. They deferred to Hill and the Alumni Foundation.
"Decisions were made with which we profoundly disagreed or left us perplexed and stunned," Hill wrote in the alumni magazine, the Kings Pointer.
In October, academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Philip H. Greene Jr. was reassigned to be the transportation chairman at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Greene, formerly director of the Navy Irregular Warfare Office, was the third superintendent in as many years.
LaHood would not discuss Greene's reassignment, saying it is a personnel matter.
"The universally popular and respected superintendent was reassigned without cause or explanation; and now . . . that mystery still hangs in the air," Hill wrote in the Kings Pointer.
Greene's reassignment led alumni and parents to reach out to legislators. Among them was Ackerman, who said he supports LaHood's decision to reassign Greene.
"They've been undergoing some changes over the past couple of years and they've had some administrative issues over the years, but it seems to be under control," Ackerman said.
'I leave with . . . a sad heart'
A spokesman for the National Defense University in Washington confirmed Greene is a Department of Transportation chairman at the school's Institute for National Security Ethics and Leadership. Greene did not respond to requests for comment.
Before he left the academy, midshipmen gathered in front of Greene's on-campus house to sing the school's alma mater. In a video on YouTube, Greene told the assembled students, "I leave here with great reluctance, with a sad heart. It was not my choice but I have other duties to perform, like you, so I will."
In December, officials announced the academy's Global Maritime and Transportation School will close in July. The school offers 140 courses annually to thousands of government, military and commercial employees, as well as a small number of midshipmen. More than 20,000 naval reservists and active-duty personnel have taken training classes there since 2001.
Administration officials said the school was one of many self-funded entities that were to be closed or converted to federal appropriations funding. The school, known as GMATS, was identified in a 2009 Government Accountability Office report that found widespread financial irregularities.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) in January sent a letter to Maritime Administrator David Matsuda protesting the closure of the school, which they said contributed $1.8 million to the local economy.
"As a strong supporter of the Merchant Marine Academy, I am disappointed by that decision and will continue to work with Secretary LaHood on this matter," King said in a statement.
But LaHood said the decision to close the school is not reversible.
The GAO report also revealed that midshipmen were overcharged by $8.1 million for school fees, which are now being refunded.
The investigation concluded the way money was handled did not conform to federal rules. The GAO made 47 recommendations to improve financial practices.
The congressional appropriations committee, which received the report, "told us we needed to pay attention to the GAO report and to pay attention to the recommendations there," LaHood said.
Training ship transferred
Maritime Administration officials said the Texas school did not have proper ships on which to train while academy midshipmen can train on merchant ships at sea. In addition, replacing the academy's Mallory Pier, an aging wood dock with loose boards and holes, will start this summer, leaving the Kings Pointer without a place to dock, officials said.
Alumni and parents of midshipmen remain concerned about the loss, saying the Kings Pointer allowed students to get training hours at sea when commercial vessels were not available.
"Many midshipmen gained sea training days aboard that ship and parents are anxious to know how those days will be replaced," Mary Jane Fuschetto, chairwoman of the academy's National Parent Association, wrote in the alumni magazine.
A replacement for the ship and when it will arrive have not been determined.
In early February, the Transportation Department announced it would convert Melville Hall, the academy's popular catering and events center, from a self-funded academy operation to privately operated. The last booking with current management will be Sept. 30; a contractor is expected to take over Oct. 1.
The hall's general manager, Richard E. Stancati, declined to comment. The catering hall change was made in response to the GAO report.
Kaiman echoed alumni and parental concerns about the future of the school, saying he hoped "that some internal problems don't undermine the whole operation."
U.S. MERCHANT MARINE ACADEMY HISTORY
1934 A fire aboard the passenger ship Morro Castle kills 134 people, prompts Congress to consider standardized training for mariners.
1936 Congress passes the Merchant Marine Act.
1938 U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps established, training at a temporary facility begins.
1942 Land in Kings Point acquired, construction begins.
Sept. 30, 1943 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point dedicated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted as saying "The academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis the Navy."
Early 1940s Length of training reduced to keep up with demand for mariners brought on by World War II.
1945 Four-year, college-level program instituted at Kings Point.
1974 Kings Point amends admission requirements becoming the first federal academy to allow women.
1991 Midshipmen and graduates play key roles in transporting military supples to the Middle East in preparation of the first Gulf war.
2006 President George W. Bush is the first president to give a commencement speech at the school. Traditionally, presidents rotate among the academies to give commencement speeches, but none had visited the school for graduation prior to Bush's visit.
2009 A Government Accountability Office report finds the academy lacked proper financial controls and that millions of dollars in midshipmen fees were collected when they should not have been.
2010 An academy Capital Improvements Advisory Panel study finds that academy facilities, including piers, are in disrepair and need $300 million in renovations, upgrades and other work.
October 2011 Academy superintendent, Rear Admiral Philip Greene reassigned. He is the third superintendent in three years. The school begins refunding $8.1 million in midshipmen fees that were overcharged during a number of years.
December 2011 Department of Transportation announces it will close the Global Maritime and Transportation School in July 2012.
January 2012 The Department of Transportation announces it has launched a strategic planning process to assess needs and goals of the academy for the future. Thirty-nine students are taken to area hospital after a malfunctioning ventilation system causes a carbon monoxide leak, affecting four barracks.
February 2012 President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the academy cuts funding by nearly 10 percent to $77 million.
Source: U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Department of Transportation, press clippings