Time to “reverse past missteps.”

Ivy Barton Suter is one of the many alumni who have stepped forward to try to help get the rudderless ship known as the United States Merchant Marine Academy in seaworthy shape and back on course. She appeared in one of the early, highly-visible, video interviews that demonstrated support — by women — for the restoration of sea year.  She has editorialized several times (here and here). Last week, she spoke out again.

This is a woman who truly understands what it means to be a pioneering woman in a male-dominated field. She went through sea year before the Academy had a clue as to how to deal with women as midshipmen on campus, to say nothing about sending them out on sea year. Here’s how I summarized her background a few months back:

Ivy Barton Suter was in the first class of women to graduate from the Academy. She did her sea year at a time when the Academy was essentially making it up as it went along when it came to supporting female midshipmen, especially at sea. As this history describes it,

After creating quarters in the barracks, ensuring appropriate lavatory facilities, and securing berthing space aboard ships, the Academy did little if anything to help women students deal with an often unwelcoming, if not hostile, environment.

So I commend to you Barton Suter’s latest effort.  Here’s a snippet, but by all means, read the whole thing:

[O]ver the past few years the Academy has been kneecapped by serious leadership and management issues, which have provided direct threats to the school’s accreditation. The suspension of Sea Year, the mission-critical training that prepares midshipmen to sail aboard U.S. flagged ships upon graduation, has only added to the Academy’s woes.

* * *

[S]tudents are missing out on the training they need for a profession in the maritime industry, a sector critical to our economy, and one that badly needs an infusion of human capital: fully-trained officers.

We join her in her conclusion, which urges Secretary Chao to “to reverse past missteps.”  That reversal is long overdue.


  1. If Secretary Chao does not step in soon with a mission to save Kings Point including replacement of current leadership at the Academy and MARAD, there doesn’t seem to be a way forward. It is heartbreaking to see all of these Midshipmens’ careers hanging in the balance . Of course it’s not been long since she was appointed and these things will take time. I think it would relieve a little stress to know that at least that she is seeing all the whole picture and where she stands. With no action being taken on the Accreditation, how can the school possibly stay open.

  2. Ivy would be a great candidate for a leadership position at KP. She has the education, training, background and experience to steer that pilotless ship to safe water.

  3. Throwing in additional good leadership talent–not that we’ve seen any recently–would be wasting yet another person’s career, like Adm Greene’s. As long as MARAD remains “guided” by political appointees, and several notable senior executives and career staff, the hostility toward the Academy will remain. No one can fix the Academy until they fix MARAD. The likelihood of that happening is nil.

    The folks at MARAD, having been to college/university as students, believe they understand the business of higher education. They don’t. They didn’t listen to Shashi Kumar when he was Dean or Interim Superintendent. What makes anyone think they’ll listen to him now?

    The disdain in which too many MARAD employees hold the Academy is appalling. The ill will they’ve exhibited time and again is impossible to overlook. Thinking that the next leadership appointment to the Academy will be the charm is ill-advised.

    • I agree that any future superintendent who wants to get the Academy back on course is doomed without a change at MARAD as well. But, with the right person appointed as Maritime Administrator, good people will be willing to step forward to be Superintendent, and between the two, they can contain and overcome the entrenched bureaucrats at MARAD that despise Kings Point.

      • A new Maritime Administrator will be eventually “captured” by the entrenched bureaucracy at MARAD. He/she won’t be able to replace those in charge of the central administrative processes MARAD provides on behalf of the Academy. For example, HR and Finance are hopeless beyond belief, and cited by Middle States as unresponsive to the needs of the Academy.

        Let’s hope you’re correct and I’m not too jaded by the experience I gained working with the folks at MARAD over an eight year period.

        • Someone who knows how to make the personnel system work can overcome the bureaucrats. You start with their annual review package. You say, “I’m giving you the following objectives for this year: (1) fix ___ (problem at Kings Point). (2) fix this ______ (other problem at Kings Point). I will review you during the mid-year review to see how you are progressing. If you fail to accomplish (1) and (2) by [deadline] there will be the following adverse consequences, up to and including ____________. You are ordered to promptly report to me, in writing, any time you feel that you cannot meet the objectives, identifying the reasons why and the resources you lack that are preventing you from meeting those objectives.”

          A good administrator knows how to work the bureaucracy rather than be worked by it. The person receiving the instructions I outline above cannot just sit back and let time pass. He has a direct order to notify the superior if he cannot meet the objective, stating reasons why and resources needed. Unless he either achieves the objective or complies with that order, he’s got troubles ahead. And if he complies with the order, you give him the resources he said he needed and he either sinks or swims.

          • Andy, with all due respect. What you’re citing is “Supervisor’s 101.” Folks in management know how to do this. However, it requires an HR System that supports a manager’s efforts at corrective action. The success of these efforts are more the exception than the rule. I know of one manager who worked carefully at salvaging a direct report’s performance. For his efforts, the person involved was designated a whistle blower and received protection accordingly.

            The resources available to a poorly performing staff member exceed those available to the supervisor. So great is the disparity that the national press frequently provides coverage on the difficulty in reforming bureaucratic behavior and performance let alone terminating someone for cause.

            If the solution, or resolution, was as straightforward as you suggest, do you think “bureaucratic behavior” would continue to be the norm?

          • First, I think you are going to see the civil service rules substantially tightened (to make it easier to fire) under this administration. Second, the problem is that very few supervisors know how to document things within the system. I’ve been involved in a number of cases involving federal employees and I’m amazed at how poorly supervisors document stuff. The Annual Performance Plans are rarely prepared properly (objectives that cannot be measured are used — so that there can be true measurement of performance; mid-year reviews are not done; examples of poor work, bad discipline, etc. are not well-documented) so that at the end of the year, when the supervisor wants to take action, HR says, “No, you can’t.” Yes, the resources for the poorly performing staff member are excessive. But, by the same token, the employee really doesn’t want to use those resources. Being on a Performance Improvement Plan (with step increases withheld, etc.) sucks. It’s much easier to fire an employee on a PIP, too. When other staff start seeing standards being upheld, they either improve their performance or transfer out. Either is a success.

  4. As someone who has spent years in government service, I can say that there is actually a very simple formula.

    If the political appointee in charge (Either the Secretary or the new MARAD Administrator) makes Kings Pont a priority, the bureaucrats have to fall in line. If the academy is not a priority for that person or if that appointee has a different vision of what the academy should be, as opposed to what we may want, the bureaucrats will make the decisions and run the place.

    It’s all about leadership and everything I have heard about Elaine Chao is positive. Give her a chance and keep in mind that the Academy, while a priority for us and our kids, is only a small part of the Department of Transportation. What we have to do is make sure that our voices are heard as she begins to appoint agency and division heads.

  5. I agree with everyone… New leadership is needed at both KP and MARAD. Perhaps the best thing that could happen would be a long hard look at the legal advice that comes from MARAD and Legislative Review process… Over the last eight years, MARAD has taken an incredibly conservative, minimalist view, of KP. If a practice is not absolutely required under Title 46 – it gets cut, period. Even programs that everyone widely acknowledges benefit the Academy and maritime industry get cut if they are not supported in law.

    I’m not aware of a single legislative proposal MARAD submitted that supports KP in recent history. They submitted/modified a lot dealing with SASH and increasing SMA oversight of KP programs but that leads me to the next issue.

    There are a lot of SMA grads at MARAD – far more than KP grads. And many of these folks view KP as a threat to their institutions and/or have a serious chip on their shoulder.

    We have to come to a realization that the industry needs both programs. KP doesn’t make the same product as the SMAs, and the SMAs don’t have the capacity to make the same product as KP. Cooperative not competitive!

    For these reasons, the job of Administrator is far more important than Supe, though Supe would be a much more enjoyable job.

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