Why the hijacking of the SAPR Working Group could threaten the reaccreditation of USMMA.
On April 20, 2016, seemingly innocuous legislation proposed by MARAD was introduced in Congress as part of Senate bill S.2829. Ostensibly, the intent was to create a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Working Group whose purpose was to make recommendations to Congress as to how to address SA/SH at USMMA and during sea year. However, buried in the bill was the now notorious section 204(d)(6), which would have tasked the Working Group with “assess[ing] whether [USMMA] should continue with sea year training on privately owned vessels or change its curricula to provide alternative training.” That language would have given the Working Group a task that is far broader than just addressing SAPR. (A complete history of the last administration’s effort to switch the Academy’s curriculum to a training ship model can be found here.)
The USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation worked hard behind the scenes in Congress to call attention to this language and the problems it would create for the Academy. Of particular concern to Members of Congress was how section 204(d)(6) might impact the Academy’s reaccreditation. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) Accrediting team had placed the Academy on Accreditation Warning due to leadership and governance issues. The governance issues included problems associated with the Academy being managed from afar by MARAD and DOT. Thankfully, MSCHE found the Academy’s curriculum — especially its sea year curriculum — to be exceptional.
In attempting to ensure that SA/SH issues at the Academy were addressed, Congress did not intend to make wholesale revisions to the Academy’s curriculum. Congress recognized that replacing sea year on commercial ships went well beyond improving prevention of and response to SA/SH during sea year. Section 204(d)(6) essentially threw out the baby with the bath water. And Congress was also sensitive to the idea that major modifications to curriculum were best left to educators rather than legislators – especially with MSCHE focused so intently on the Academy and concerned about governance from afar. Thus, Congress replaced MARAD’s version of section 204(d)(6). Congress deleted the directive to consider alternatives to sea year on commercial vessels. Instead, Congress directed the Working Group to study methods of improving the sea year experience as it related to SAPR.
That should have been the end of it. However, then-Maritime Administrator Chip Jaenichen, then-Deputy Administrator Michael “Anchorman” Rodriguez, and Superintendent James Hellis weren’t done with trying to advance their agenda of switching the Academy from sea year on commercial ships to the state maritime school training ship model. In our last post, we documented how the departing politicos at MARAD were trying to overrule Congress and put the Working Group back on the “replace sea year” course. That hijacking puts Congress back in the curriculum-setting role that in turn puts it on a collision course with MSCHE. (The MARAD hijackers also set up Congress to take the blame if curriculum changes are made that threaten the Academy’s reaccreditation.)
The attempt to get the Working Group to recommend that Congress make a major change to the Academy’s curriculum while it is on Accreditation Warning is an existential threat to the Academy’s reaccreditation.
There are a couple of ways to address this problem. First, in the absence of a new MARAD Administrator, Secretary Chao should step in directly and let the members of the Working Group know that she expects them to follow Congress’ directive and not get sidetracked by efforts to force a major curriculum revision such as replacement of sea year. Second, Congress should direct that the Working Group’s recommendations be delayed until Secretary Chao’s choice for the new Maritime Administrator is in office so that the report becomes Secretary Chao’s report. Finally, Congress should consider getting additional outside input on the Working Group’s report before it is finalized and sent to Congress. What goes to Congress should be fully vetted so that it is in a format that Congress can act upon. Congress should consider directing that before the Working Group report is finalized, it be sent to the USMMA Faculty Curriculum Committee and MSCHE. Both should be invited to offer comment and be given 60 days to do so. The public should also have the opportunity to comment. Congress should require the final report to include an appendix with the comments received from those two groups and any public comment.