On June 16, 2016, with no advance notice, MARAD unilaterally announced that it was suspending sea year at Kings Point. Thirty-three midshipmen who were to depart for sea within the next 8 days were suddenly confined to campus. The Academy has given inconsistent information as to whether all, or only most, midshipmen at sea are supposed to disembark upon reaching their “next port” and will be returned to their homes at Academy expense.
Amazingly, MARAD admits that there was no real reason for this precipitous and costly action: according to the Academy’s website, “There is no specific incident prompting this action.” Nevertheless, MARAD states that “there is a need to ensure the safety and mutual respect for all Midshipman on vessels during Sea Year.” Based upon this “need” that is prompted by nothing “specific,” “MARAD is convening a Call-to-Action with the maritime industry to address these issues and begin to develop a comprehensive plan to address these problems throughout the maritime industry.” It is doing so at the expense of hundreds of midshipmen, many of whom will likely be held back from graduating because they will not have met their Coast Guard mandated sea year requirements.
Let there be no doubt about the fact that this decision came, not from the Academy, but from the higher echelons of MARAD and/or the Department of Transportation. It is MARAD that is convening the “call-to-action.” And it is MARAD and the DOT that have the cudgel to force the shipping industry to come to the table.
The decision is an affront to every constituency of the Academy, starting with the incredible harm done to the midshipmen. There are now cadets who face the very real possibility that they will not graduate on time. Then there are those who are about to commence their second class (junior) year at the Academy. Upon commencing that year, if they drop out, they can be called to active duty for three years as seamen in the U.S. Navy. A cadet about to start the second class year needs to make a quick decision whether to transfer from the Academy or risk the consequences of MARAD’s rash decision – consequences that include a possible set back for a year and/or the loss of one of the most valuable aspects of the Kings Point experience.
In a true example of adding insult to injury, the suspension of sea year is also incredibly insulting to midshipmen (particularly women midshipmen) and implies that all Kings Point cadets are in need of special coddling. The reaction in the industry, as reflected in discussion groups on various on-line maritime forums, is that midshipmen cannot hack a tough life at sea. But it wasn’t the midshipmen who raised the surrender flag – it was some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. who has never sailed a single day as a crew member on a commercial merchant ship. One-hundred-and-forty-two Kings Point cadets perished in World War II. Those cadets, along with many who survived, established a Kings Point tradition of performing countless unsung acts of heroism reflected in the Academy’s motto, Acta Non Verba. Our current midshipmen, like those who came before them, would not hesitate to take similar heroic action without regard to the personal consequences; but some nimrod in Washington has concluded that they must be protected from an unidentified, non-specific threat. Verba Non Acta rules the day in Washington to the great detriment of the cadets.
This foolish edict undermines the Academy’s alumni. It creates the assumption that we cannot make our way in the world and deal with – and stop – sexual harassment in the workplace. If cadets must be sheltered from the mere possibility of sexual harassment while in training, then what message does that send about an alumnus boarding a ship? It says to the crew, and the world, “Here is someone who cannot deal with difficult situations or be counted upon in a crisis.” Verba Non Acta indeed.
This rash and thoughtless act tarnishes the Academy as an institution. Kings Point proudly and justifiably touts the fact that it led the way in admitting women to the federal academies. That pride was furthered as we witnessed those pioneering women excelling – in an industry that was far more sexist then than it is now – and achieving the ranks of Master and Chief Engineer and assuming leadership roles in the maritime industry ashore. Whatever sexual harassment problems may exist in the industry today, does anyone truly believe that they are worse now than they were for those pioneers? Yet they survived and excelled. (Were any of these pioneers even consulted about this “issue?”) The institution that touts “Damn the Submarines” in its fight song is being torpedoed by MARAD singing “Why can’t we be friends.”
The decision falsely tars the entire U.S. Merchant Marine as a sexist and depraved hell-hole – based upon “no specific incident.” No facet of the industry is considered by MARAD to be safe – from major liner and towing companies to the smallest crew boat – not even fellow governmental entities such as Military Sealift Command, the Army Corps of Engineers or NOAA. Since World War II, Kings Point and the U.S. Merchant Marine have partnered in the sea year program with amazing success. In one ill-thought-out move (apparently without any consultation whatsoever), that partnership has been shattered.
To the extent that there are problems with, as the Maritime Administrator describes it, “harassment, . . . hazing, . . .coercion, . . . retaliation” in the U.S. Merchant Marine, there are ways to address it without the drastic action of a sudden suspension of a vital aspect of the Academy experience. The U.S. Department of Labor enforces Title VII and has enormous power that it can bring to bear upon a company that tolerates harassment, hazing, coercion or retaliation. The U.S. Coast Guard can and will investigate sexual harassment aboard merchant ships and can pull the papers of anyone found guilty of it. Punish the perpetrators – not the industry – and certainly not the victims.
This suspension is a demonstration of the failure of leadership at the highest levels. What we are witnessing is the natural consequence of an Academy and DOT/MARAD leadership devoid of any merchant marine experience. This would never be allowed at any other Academy. The other academies may have their problems, but having leadership in place that has lived the mission is not one of them. When the Secretary of the Navy gets advice about the Naval Academy, he is not getting it from people who have no clue what it means to be in the Navy. Yet the Secretary of Transportation is relying on advice from a Superintendent who did not come to Kings Point from the highest levels of the maritime industry, but from a teaching role at the Army War College – and only after the job description for the Superintendent position was deliberately altered to remove the requirement that the Superintendent have significant experience in the merchant marine. This appointment (and the watering down of the job description) came from MARAD and DOT leadership sharing the same obliviousness about the merchant marine. The current Maritime Administrator has no background in the merchant marine and instead is a former submarine officer. Whatever last chance the Academy may have had with its Advisory Board was lost when DOT/MARAD made appointments to it consisting almost entirely of individuals who have absolutely no merchant marine experience. This is the group that advises the Secretary about the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. You really cannot make this up.
When a life-or-death decision needs to be made at sea, Kings Pointers don’t “stand down”: We step up. We address the problem and are prepared to account for the solution we chose. A Kings Pointer would know how to deal with a bureaucrat demanding a stand down based upon a “feeling” that there is a crisis even though there is “no specific incident.” That’s why Acta Non Verba is such an appropriate motto for Kings Point – and that’s why this administration does not want Kings Pointers in positions of leadership. The long-term solution to the Academy’s problems is to be led by the women and men who have been through the institution and gone on to excel in the merchant marine. Nothing else will bring the correct perspective, experience, and change so desperately needed at Kings Point.
The stand down should be reversed immediately. The accompanying “call-to-action” may well be appropriate, as the vestiges of sexual harassment in the seafaring workplace should be rooted out, just as they should be rooted out in non-maritime workplaces. But, the call-to-action should not be based upon the coercion accompanying the suspension of sea year and should instead be made with a view towards working with (1) the Academy’s sea year partners and (2) Kings Point alumni with the actual experience of successfully overcoming sexual harassment at sea. The goal should be to develop appropriate measures to address actual issues and then establish industry guidelines designed to ensure a threat-free work environment. Further, as is appropriate for an institution of the caliber of Kings Point, the vision should not be to establish a safe working environment solely for midshipmen in the U.S. Merchant Marine; rather, MARAD and the Academy should take a leadership role in establishing standards that apply aboard every ship of every flag, While problems may remain in the U.S. Merchant Marine, they pale in comparison to the very significant problems that exist aboard flags of convenience where unlicensed crew members from impoverished nations must endure unspeakable acts of sexual abuse from shipboard management in order to pursue a livelihood.