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Opinion

Right the foundering U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

An aerial view of the United States Merchant

An aerial view of the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

If you need a symbol of the problems besetting the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, look no farther than the institution's museum, which was closed recently by boiler trouble.

A faulty boiler could beset any institution, of course. But this is a school that teaches steam engineering.

Unfortunately, the academy's museum is the least of its problems. Its facilities need $300-million worth of overhaul. It has no superintendent -- the top position -- after having had three in three years. Its pier is crumbling and Uncle Sam sent its training ship off to Texas. The academy's leadership vacuum and sagging plant raise a larger question: Who needs it?

America does need qualified maritime personnel. Although the vast majority of international cargo is shipped under foreign flags, career opportunities for American maritime grads abound in shipping-related fields such as offshore oil exploration, ferry operation and maritime insurance, not to mention the armed forces. Maritime alumni also use their engineering skills to work for defense contractors, at electric power plants or on complex boiler operations at sprawling hospitals.

But Kings Point only produces a fraction of our country's maritime graduates. And it's not just in turmoil, it's expensive, with a budget of $85 million and an 82-acre waterfront campus on Nassau County's North Shore that would make a developer drool.

 

The truth is, America could live without this academy. Six state merchant marine academies from California to Maine, including one right across Long Island Sound and under the Throgs Neck Bridge, are training roughly 5,500 students at any given time -- versus just 1,000 at Kings Point. Absent a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, they could expand to pick up the slack. The program at SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler is comparable to that of Kings Point. Roughly 70 percent of the SUNY college's undergraduates even participate in its military-oriented "regiment of cadets" program. The Bronx school says that last year at least 90 employers recruited graduates, whose average starting pay exceeded $60,000.

The Kings Point academy, constructed during World War II based on a 1936 act of Congress, has produced many able mariners, in keeping with its mission. But it's also a testament to how hard it is for Washington to cut spending. In 1993, as part of its "reinventing government" initiative, the Clinton administration tried to slash funding for Kings Point and impose a $15,000 annual tuition. Students have traditionally enjoyed a full free ride because the school is one of the nation's service academies, like West Point or Annapolis. The main difference is that most Kings Point graduates go to work in private industry -- they need only join the U.S. Navy Reserve to satisfy their military obligation.

Charging for a valuable education isn't a bad idea, with perhaps a waiver for those (about 25 percent) who accept an active-duty commission. But tuition opponents -- including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights), an ardent supporter of the academy -- beat back the Clinton plan, noting that the free education draws top students. Ackerman, who is retiring this year, has defended the institution ever since.

 

So the Merchant Marine Academy doesn't seem likely to go away -- or get any less costly. On the contrary, Uncle Sam is adding $54 million in capital funding. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees Kings Point, promises another training ship and has launched a strategic planning process to chart a course for the institution's future.

If the academy is to survive and thrive, its most pressing need is for a capable leader who can hang on to the job. The new superintendent must be a dynamic, well-organized diplomat who can get faculty, students and alumni working in unison to move the school full steam ahead. Until such a leader takes the helm, the Merchant Marine Academy will continue to just drift along.

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