Dear Secretary Chao:
We at KingsPointSentry.com welcomed your nomination as the Secretary of Transportation and we were particularly heartened during your confirmation hearing when Senator Wicker asked about the sea year
stand down cancellation and accreditation at the US Merchant Marine Academy and you responded: “This is a huge issue and I can assure you that if confirmed, this will be the first issue I take up at MARAD.”
Despite your obvious interest in addressing the accreditation issue, MARAD has failed to put your words into practice. In the four months since you were confirmed, the Academy has provided almost no information about the status of accreditation. Indeed, it was only due to KingsPointSentry.com’s FOIA request that the Academy even deigned to inform the midshipmen, faculty, parents and alumni that it had met the accreditation commission’s deadline for submitting a required monitoring report. The monitoring report simply describes the steps the Academy took in the previous nine months to address the unprecedented accreditation warning given to the Academy; steps that one would expect the Academy to proudly disclose. Instead of freely publishing a report that it had already disseminated to a non-governmental entity, MARAD responded to our FOIA request by redacting every substantive aspect of that report.
Due to this stonewalling, we filed a FOIA appeal. We received the decision on our appeal yesterday and — to no one’s surprise — we won the appeal. But unfortunately, despite admitting that we are entitled to the unredacted document, MARAD is still stonewalling us. It is required by law to provide us the document immediately; yet it has stated that that it won’t give us the information until sometime after mid-July. (This was not an onerous request — we limited our FOIA request to a single, 148-page, document.)
Madam Secretary, it is unlikely that you would be aware of a key reason why this document is so important. Once a midshipman begins his or her second class (junior) year, he or she must either complete the course of instruction at the Academy or be subject to being ordered to active (enlisted, not officer) duty in the US Armed Forces. See 46 C.F.R. 310.58(e). This deadline is confronting approximately 200 third class midshipmen at the Academy in the next 14 to 45 days (depending upon whether or not they are departing for sea year or reporting back to the Academy).
A key factor in deciding whether to commit to completing the final two years at the Academy is whether or not the Academy will keep its accreditation. Graduating from a non-accredited institution has serious consequences — any federal job that requires a college degree requires that the degree be from an accredited institution. Thus, even sailing jobs with Military Sealift Command may be unavailable to current midshipmen if accreditation is lost. Further, it is difficult, if not impossible, to transfer credits from an unaccredited institution to a new university. Also, graduation from an unaccredited institution affects eligibility for post-graduate education.
These 200 third class midshipmen must make career- and life-altering decisions in the next few weeks — should they stay at the Academy and hope that they will graduate from an accredited institution? Or should they transfer now — while they still can do so without being called up for active duty and while they can still get full credit on their transferred courses? Before making such a decision, they are entitled to see the monitoring report so that they can know how the Academy is responding to the threat to accreditation and make an informed decision. Seeing the report in mid-July — after they are obligated to either finish at the Academy or face a call-up to active, enlisted, duty — will be too late.
Madam Secretary, please do not let the holdovers from the last administration undermine your agenda for the Academy. It is within your power to overrule MARAD and order the release of the monitoring report immediately. It’s the right thing to do and it is consistent with your promise to Senator Wicker. Two hundred midshipmen deserve your immediate attention to this.