Dear Secretary Chao: MARAD is undermining you.

Dear Secretary Chao:

We at 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’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.


  1. Great letter. Your efforts are much appreciated. The air traffic controller thing may have been occupying Chao’s attention. Bob Curt

  2. If your assessment of the rules is correct, the situation has now gone from farce to tragedy.

    I will recommend to my mid that he remain in the school, not because I have any confidence in MARAD’s currrnt leadership but because he loves it and it is what he wants. It is his dream and he is more committed to it than apparently the leadership is. I also still have hope that Secretary Chao will make the necessary changes.
    I haven’t said this outright before, but Helis should submit his resignation immediately along with a request that ,as a matter of personal responsibility,he is asking Middle States to hold off on any final decision until a new Sup has had a chance to address their concerns.
    How, in good conscience,can he continue to play politics with the lives of so many committed young men and women?
    PLEASE ADMIRAL– either disprove the KPS analysis as described above or have enough dignity to go away quickly and quietly. You owe either an explanation or a resignation to the young men and women you command, nothing more and nothing less.

  3. Excellent points that clearly explain why this information, sans redaction, should have been available and transparent, really to all, as soon as it was submitted to the Accredation Commission. When will Secratary Chao take steps to hold Superintendent Helis accountable for his obvious leadership failings is anyone’s guess but the time someone does so is clearly long overdue, IMO.

  4. I have to disagree with enforcement obligation to Active Enlisted Service (AES) which has not been enforced since I’ve been processing over 100 disenrollments from the seven Maritime Academies over the past 2 years. AES is reserved for special cases usually scholarship NROTC midshipmen and has to be approved by SECNAV for each case. The guidance from Navy has been recoupment of funds by MARAD rather than AES. Remember MARAD administrator can waive obligation requirements rather than forced to AES. Either way USMMA needs to do some significant changes from the top down and MARAD has it’s work cut out for it in order to institute needed changes.

    • Matt: The call-up provision is a matter of law. Yes, the Administrator can decide to seek reimbursement of tuition instead, but that is also a huge hardship and is unfair to a midshipman placed in that position as a result of MARAD’s negligence. And, suppose we end up in a war with North Korea or defending a NATO country. The unwritten, unofficial, policy of not doing call-ups could change in a New York second. Without a guarantee of a waiver at the time of the commitment (now 8 days away for the B-split third classmen), a midshipman would be foolhardy to rely upon the hope of a waiver later.

      • The fact that a law or contract has not been enforced as a matter of policy only means that the policy can be changed and the law can in fact be enforced. For example, we are actually seeing something similar now with the interpretation and policy decisions being made regarding immigration laws in Washington D.C.. The laws themselves have not been changed but the enforcement and policy decisions regarding their implementation have been changed by the new administration. (Warning: Just using this as a recent example that most people can relate to. I do not want to start a debate on immigration.)

  5. Good point on being a law but not enforced. The issue with being forced to active enlisted service is just that. All volunteer force with no draft since the 70’s. Service secretaries do not want members forced into enlisted service. Noto good for morale and mission accomplishment. If we bring back the draft then that’s a different story. Good thread though.

  6. I received an almost identical response to my FOIA request. I am planning to file a complaint for injunctive relief in US District Court.

    As a Federal employee, I am astounded at how loose MARAD follows the rules. I have never been litigious; but having applied for the Commandant’s position, my formal EEO complaint has been accepted by DOT. I am still waiting to hear from the Office of Special Counsel on my complaint that MARAD did not follow Merit System Principles and committed a Prohibited Personnel Practice on the Commandant’s hiring action.

    All this points to a pattern of either ineptness, incompetence, or corruptness in this agency. I have nearly 35 years of military and federal service; never have I ever observed an agency this broken. My current job is as an educator. I have stood 2 accreditation visits, but have never heard of results a poor as given to USMMA by MSCHE. Believe me, it is not that hard to pass one.

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