if they don’t, they need to now after reading this PILE OF SHIT!
By Pamela Glass
As midshipmen arrived at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., this summer to begin a new academic year, they were greeted with more than buzz cuts and pushups.
The newly renovated Rogers Hall dorm was reopened after a major structural overhaul. Delano dining hall has a new kitchen and caterer. A replacement for Mallory Pier is under construction. And the training vessel Kings Pointer, a former NASA ship, is being renovated at a yard in Florida and is expected to dock on campus this fall.
After years of operating with crumbling facilities under numerous superintendents, Kings Point appears to be righting its listing ship.
“Kings Point is still one of the priorities we have within this administration,” Paul “Chip” Jaenichen, acting administrator at the U.S. Maritime Administration, told a recent gathering of USMMA graduates in Baltimore. “It is one of our crown jewels of our five service academies, and we are trying to get it back to that position.”
Marad, the Transportation Department agency that oversees the academy, has invested heavily in capital improvements to Kings Point, which sits on stunning waterfront property on Long Island that once included the estate of Walter Chrysler. “We have a lot of work going on,” Jaenichen said. “It is pretty exciting.”
For those close to Kings Point — including students, faculty, alumni, and the commercial maritime industry — these changes have been long overdue. Things were so bad five years ago that a Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel tasked by DOT to assess the school called the situation “dire” and concluded that the academy had reached a “tipping point.”
REPUTATION IN JEOPARDY
Facilities — many that dated to the school’s founding more than 60 years ago — had deteriorated to the point of having electrical and plumbing failures. The gym, built in 1943, needed modern ventilation, lighting and floors. Last year, a carbon monoxide leak in one of the dorms sent 39 cadets to the hospital. The waterfront piers “were in an abysmal state.” Cost of improvements was put at $300 million.
The panel warned in its 2010 report that unless buildings, athletic facilities, and training equipment were upgraded and internal financial practices reformed, the academy could lose its reputation as a world-class maritime training institution as well as its school accreditation.
A year earlier, in 2009, the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a highly critical report on the school’s finances. It found numerous irregularities, including overcharging midshipmen $8.1 million in school fees, and made 47 recommendations for improvements.
During this period, the academy had three superintendents who were reassigned after staying no more than a year on campus. This left the school without strong, consistent leadership and it hurt morale. Several other administrators and support staff were also let go, in what Mary Jane Fuschetto, outgoing head of the USMMA National Parent Association, called “an academic massacre.”
“Every single person who knew how to run the place was fired,” she said.
The turmoil focused an unflattering light on the academy and its mission, with those inside and outside the marine industry wondering if the academy was still relevant.
Also of significance were changes occurring in the maritime industry. With bluewater shipping now dominated by foreign-flag ships and new opportunities being found in the brownwater and offshore energy sectors, the traditional curriculum seemed outmoded and in need of a reality check.
Congress started to take note as complaints began to pour in from alumni and parents. Former DOT Secretary Ray LaHood visited the campus and was “aghast” at what he saw. Money started to flow to the academy to upgrade its sagging infrastructure and reforms were made in the school’s organizational structure and finances.
Curriculum changes are also underway, including recent Coast Guard approval of a revised curriculum that incorporates the new STCW requirements for Coast Guard licensing.
New courses are also in the works for midshipmen to learn about shipping on the inland and coastal waterways and operation of offshore service vessels.
USMMA’s superintendent, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, a retired Army colonel with 30 years of military service and a teaching stint at the U.S. Army War College, has promised to stay the course of reform.
Soon after taking over in June 2012, Helis released a strategic plan that will guide the academy through 2017, outlining improvements in financial accounting, infrastructure, campus culture, leadership and relations between the academy and the maritime industry.
Helis said in an interview that progress has been made in the past year toward meeting these goals. This includes a new chief financial officer and a new advisory board, building and infrastructure renovations, and the approval of a new curriculum. Relations with Marad have also improved.
“It’s all very positive,” Helis said. “We are continuing to invest in infrastructure, and we have enough money in the 2014 budget to cover continued improvements in the coming year. This shows the continued support from Congress and the administration for the academy.”
He said morale on campus “is better than it was a year ago,” and this has been helped along by the new construction that is a visible sign of investment in the school.
Asked how he responded to questions about the school’s relevancy, he said: “The school is still relevant today and will remain relevant in the future. Our graduates are in high demand, and we see 100 percent employment after graduation, so there is still a need for licensed mariners.”
There are still some rough spots, observers say, and hard feelings persist between the school’s alumni, Marad and academy administration.
Several decisions by the school administration, under the direction of Marad/DOT, have puzzled parents and alumni, who actively support the school with donations and student mentoring and closely follow school developments from football to finances.
Alumni feel that they are being marginalized, “herded for the past seven years rather than consulted on major decisions affecting the academy,” Charles Hill, chairman of the USMMA Alumni Association Foundation, wrote in the May issue of the Kings Pointer alumni magazine. He said that “a number of decisions and actions have been taken that have damaged the academy,” and he questioned the rationale of continued alumni donations to the school.
Among the issues is the constant reassignment of superintendents, and shuttering of the Global Maritime and Transportation School. Also upsetting was the eviction of the Alumni Association and Foundation from its on-campus office because administrators said the space was needed for classrooms during renovations.
Helis said that alumni are valued for their networking and financial support on behalf of midshipmen, but he dismissed the complaints, saying “there are strains in every relationship. We will continue to work with alumni.”
In the end, people say what matters most is the quality of education that students receive in preparation for jobs in commercial shipping and defense.
“I can’t say that academics have suffered,” said Fuschetto of the parent association. Two of her daughters graduated from the academy and work in commercial shipping.
“I still think it’s a premier school and the problems are internal to the administration and to Marad,” said Fuschetto, who has published a book about the academy and often travels to Washington from her home in Colorado to promote the school to Congress.
“There’s a saying that Kings Point is not always the place you want to be, but is always the place you want to be from. The midshipmen still feel that way. No one has complained about the quality of the education there.”
Sounds like there is a few million tons of FECES to be hauled away from the place!