I’m at the Academy homecoming for my 35th reunion. Some of you will recall that I went to last year’s homecoming and reported on what the administration was saying then and actions being taken by alumni. I am pleased to report that the atmosphere on campus is significantly improved. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby attended the Alumni Awards Dinner Thursday evening and has been visible all over the campus today. He spoke to the Academy Alumni Foundation this morning; was at the top of the steps of Delano Hall for lunch, greeting alumni coming in to dine with the midshipmen; after lunch he was spotted on Zero Deck, unescorted, talking to people walking past him; then he was off to the State of the Academy session; was the reviewing officer for the Formal Parade; and dropped in on the Class of ’82’s evening function and spent over an hour there chatting with those of us who were plebes when he was our Regimental Commander. And that’s just what I personally witnessed. By way of contrast, last year former Maritime Administrator Jaenichen stormed out of the meeting with the AAF referring to the alumni as “fucking assholes” when all we had done was to confront him with facts that were counter to the narrative he was trying to spin.
Admiral Buzby delivered several messages today that gave all Academy stakeholders reason to be optimistic about the future. The major news he delivered was that the Alumni Foundation is being welcomed back on campus. While the details remain to be worked out, he envisions that the Lerner House will be donated to the Academy and simultaneously a favorable lease of space to the Alumni Foundation will be executed. Several years ago, the AAF proposed a solution along these lines. At one point, the AAF suggested that the Lerner House is more appropriate as housing for the Superintendent (both in terms of suitability for the Superintendent and in terms of local zoning laws); whereas the Superintendent’s current house is located near the more “commercial” aspects of the Academy (such as Melville Hall) and would be an ideal location for a visitor center and AAF offices. The exact details of where the AAF will be located on campus remain to be determined.
I asked Buzby about the decision to bring the AAF back on board and he referred to the decision as “low hanging fruit.” He stated that when he discussed the issue with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, she was in full support of the move and signed off on it quickly.
Buzby’s comments on the restoration of sea year were also very promising. One additional company (unfortunately with only one ship) (bringing us to a total of ten companies) is now approved to carry Academy midshipmen; but, seven additional companies are now in the process of getting approved. He stated that he had asked his staff to look at ways of making the process of getting approved less onerous, which is something that industry has encouraged; and that he was personally calling the presidents of shipping companies to encourage them to apply for approval and to gain an understanding of any reasons that they companies might be hesitant to seek the approval. Up until Buzby’s intervention, MARAD was content to wait for companies to come to it to request approval — with predictable results.
Despite this positive message on sea year, Superintendent Helis acknowledged that a key weakness in the restoration of sea year was the lack of opportunities for midshipmen to get sea year assignments on tankers, a problem we had noted here. Without such assignments, midshipmen are precluded from getting their Person-in-Charge cards before graduation, which limits their employment opportunities. The fact that the administration is acknowledging this issue is a big step towards addressing it.
During the State of the Academy session, I had the opportunity to point out that the Defense Management Data Center Sexual Assault and Gender Relations Surveys were not tailored to be usefully applied to the Academy and thus were unreliable. I was pleased to hear Buzby agree in a manner that indicated that he fully understood the problem. Buzby stated that he is presently reviewing the interim survey report and was “footnoting it” to make sure that it was clear that the margins of error were so broad (e.g., +/- 12%) that it was impossible to determine whether incidents of sexual assault/sexual harassment were increasing or decreasing or whether they were higher or lower than other educational institutions. It is very encouraging that Buzby is drilling into the data rather than simply accepting it without question. I should note that Buzby did not downplay the need to address SASH: He acknowledged that even thought the data may be flawed in some respects, it nevertheless suggests that there is a problem with midshipmen-on-midshipmen SASH and that he was challenging the midshipmen to take ownership of the problem and to address it.
Superintendent Helis gave a positive report on the status of reaccreditation. The Academy submitted a monitoring report to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (“MSCHE”) and the accrediting committee from MSCHE will be on campus next week. Helis indicates that he is optimistic that on November 20, 2017, MSCHE will remove the warning on the Academy and that it will be reaccredited. I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that if the Academy is reaccredited, then Helis will resign as Superintendent shortly thereafter so that he can claim he is leaving on a high note. I don’t care how he goes — just as long as he goes.
Finally, I should note how encouraging it is that Buzby has committed to the maximum transparency possible with respect to MARAD. He told me today (which was a repeat of a promise he made to me several months ago), that if I wanted information, I should not hesitate to call him and ask for it. As he said this, he handed me his business card with his direct dial and cellular phone numbers on it. When you think of it, there is really no reason why most of MARAD’s work should not be fully transparent. I intend to take Buzby up on this offer shortly; this commitment to transparency is certainly a departure from MARAD’s past adversarial attitude to Freedom of Information Act requests.
All of the above news is flowing through the regiment. I made it a point to speak with as many midshipmen as possible today and the general feeling was one of being energized by Buzby’s message and commitment and being determined to live up to his expectations. If that happens, then a new dawn will indeed rise over the Academy.