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Protecting the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for the next generation of women Mariners

Although it is probably the least known and understood of the five federal service academics, the United States Merchant Marine Academy serves a vital economic role and helps America maintain its dominance of the seas. 

The Academy trains the officers who command many of our commercial and naval vessels. It is a difficult job and we owe these men and women a debt of gratitude for their service. 

{mosads}Right now the Academy that has trained these officers is suffering.

It is creaking under the weight of uninspired, feckless leadership that has fallen short on three critical fronts. 

The first—and most fundamental failing in an academic setting—is its failure to preserve the academy’s accreditation. Earlier this year, its accreditor issued a formal warning saying the Academy failed five out of 14 critical areas including planning, leadership and governance, administrative staff qualifications, resource allocation and student services. Faculty reported low morale and poor communication across the academy. Key academic and administrative job vacancies are being left unfilled. If the Academy loses its accreditation, its days are numbered.  

Second, when it announced a study – without providing supporting data – suggesting sexual assault and harassment of students, Academy leadership took the easy way out. Like every other college and university in America, the Academy must unflinchingly deal with this issue. Our heritage demands it. The Merchant Marine Academy was the first federal academy to allow women, and I am proud beyond words to be among its first female graduates (class of 1978). Today nearly 20 percent of midshipmen are women.

The Academy’s leaders panicked. Instead of bringing people together to come up with tangible solutions, it sought to make headlines by suspending “Sea Year,” the cornerstone of the curriculum during which our male and female midshipmen train on commercial vessels. Academy leaders are operating under the bizarre assumption that sexual assault and harassment can only happen on a ship, not on a campus. 

The negative impact of this decision on our midshipmen in terms of professional development is hard to overstate. How did the Academy’s leaders arrive at such a radical, unprecedented decision? We don’t know.  They have stubbornly refused to share the data not only with the students, but also with parents, alumni and, amazingly, the U.S. Congress, with members making multiple requests.

Other than patting itself on the back for killing Sea Year, the leadership was completely silent on any real-world proposals to protect our midshipmen at sea or on campus. I have personally heard from dozens of midshipmen, alumni and parents, all of whom expressed deep disappointment and shock about the impact of the Sea Year suspension.

The current leadership stands in embarrassing contrast to Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) who recently laid out a rational roadmap to address sexual assault and sexual harassment at Kings Point, including specific actions to get Sea Year back up and running. The senator has called for equipping midshipmen at sea with satellite phones, spot checks on commercial vessels where our midshipmen are working and record-keeping that shows crew members have received training and have a valid Transportation Worker Identification Credential. The last two are currently standard practice for commercial ships sailing under the U.S. flag. Satellite phones and spot checks need no legislative action and can be readily implemented in time for our midshipmen to be out at sea by the next rotation.

Third, the Academy leadership has created a culture of distrust. It refuses to share hard data on why it unilaterally suspended Sea Year, has dodged accountability on the accreditation issue and has done little or nothing to promote real-world proposals to deal with sexual misconduct other than commissioning yet another government study.

Sea Year was my first experience in the real world. In addition to learning hands-on shipboard engineering and being held accountable for my performance by professional mariners, I sailed to ports around the world. I learned how to work with people and get the job done, even in difficult circumstances. As one of the first women at sea, I was not harassed. It was an unprecedented, fulfilling challenge to work and live in a then male-dominated environment.  For me, I honed skills that were critical for success throughout my career.

The federal service academies are our nation’s crown jewels. The work they do must be preserved for future generations of America’s men and women. If today’s leadership doesn’t get it, they must get out of the way and let others do the job. 

Ivy Barton Suter graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1978 and was in the first class of women to graduate from any federal academy.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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