What in the world was Sharon van Wyk thinking?

Not enough attention has been paid to Sharon van Wyk’s role in the false narrative that SA/SH on commercial ships is so significant that the solution was to stand down cancel sea year.

Van Wyk is the chair of the Academy Advisory Board, which consists of seven civilians who by law must be “distinguished in education and other fields related to the Academy” to advise the Maritime Administrator and Superintendent on “the course of instruction and management of the Academy.” Ms. van Wyk has a background in business development at for-profit, on-line, education businesses and ancillary service providers. She was selected by DOT staff in 2013 when Ray LaHood was Secretary of Transportation. If she has any background in the merchant marine, federal service academies, or even campus college administration, I cannot find it.  Her expertise seems to be driving revenue growth at on-line education-related businesses. Clearly, she would be challenged to understand a federal service academy much less the maritime industry and sea year, much less SA/SH. Her primary contribution, based upon her previous Advisory Board reports, seems to have been to simply prop up Superintendent Helis and advance his agenda.  The blind leading the blind.

She is also one of the only three people we know of who thinks sea year is unsafe.

Several sources indicate that it was van Wyk’s comments to Secretary Foxx during a briefing and presentation of the Advisory Board’s annual report on June 10, 2016 that precipitated the ill-thought-out, knee-jerk, decision to issue the sea year stand down cancellation.

So what was van Wyk’s role? According to her report and our sources, she decided to conduct informal (i.e. unscientific) interviews of apparently randomly selected midshipmen to ask them about SA/SH. We don’t know how she conducted these interviews, because she apparently made it up as she went along. There is no documentation of it. We don’t know what questions were asked, or how they were asked.

I have represented a number of women law enforcement officers who were victims of sex discrimination; and trust me,  how you ask a question, and how you document the answer, makes all the difference in the world:

“Q. I hear you say that the experience wasn’t that bad.  But wouldn’t you agree it was the worst experience in your entire sea year?”

A.  Well, since the rest of my sea year was awesome, I guess I would say “yes”; but, it was a single sexist joke by my sea year partner and I don’t think he realized that I found it offensive.  As soon as he realized he had crossed the line, he apologized; and he never crossed the line again. I wouldn’t have even mentioned it if you hadn’t pressed me.”

(Interviewer writes down:  “Midshipmen reports that the sexual harassment incident was the worst experience of her sea year.)

But, van Wyk’s failure to document the results of her unscientific study is only a small part of the problem. How did she come up with the questions to ask? How did she vet the questions in advance to make sure that her questions were appropriate and didn’t cause further harm to a sexual assault victim? What support mechanisms had she arranged in advance to deploy in case her questioning triggered a crisis for the sexual assault victim?

In contrast to the unprofessional — and potentially harmful — “survey” done by van Wyk, every two years the Academy uses the Defense Manpower Data Center to conduct professional surveys in a controlled process to acquire and report on SA/SH data – the same organization used by all other service academies. There is a reason that the Academy hires professionals to conduct these types of surveys. How questions are formulated, how they are asked, who is asked, what is the response type, etc., is a carefully controlled process designed to elicit accurate  information while at the same time avoiding further harm to the victims of SA/SH. This is called “data.”

Van Wyk did not get data. She got anecdotal reports that she did not document and then reported her interpretation of those reports. The process was potentially harmful to the women it was supposed to protect; and the result was patently unfair to the midshipmen and an entire industry. And given the existence of the professional surveys, what possible motivation did she have to advance the false narrative other than to divert attention from the fact that the Advisory Board she chairs had not detected the problems that the MSCHE accreditation team was going  to make public two weeks after she delivered her oral report to Secretary Foxx? As Carl Sagan used to day, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Van Wyk has NO evidence to support her claims.

I have criticized the Academy’s SA/SH surveys because they leave much room for improvement; but, at least they are carefully thought out in advance and have been used at all of the federal academies.  It looks to me like what van Wyk did was irresponsible on many different — and far more serious — levels.


  1. In today’s “State of the Academy” briefing, Helis and Jaenichen repeatedly hid behind “the study says”. However, once you start peeling back how the studies were done you find that there was no “garbage filter” in the surveys that were given to Mid’n at 0600 who were then told that the survey was optional. Just how professional is this? The bottom line is that the surveys, despite the thin veneer of “professionalism” are a classic study in GIGO (Garbage In / Garbage Out).

    When pressed Helis admitted that his four years at KP there have been three (3) incidents that have actually resulted in either criminal charges or other disciplinary action. Two of these were from incidents at the Academy and one at sea. Helis stated that due to “privacy concerns” the Academy was not aware of the verdict / sentence, if any, of the one case that happened at sea. However, as always, he and Jaenichen retreated behind “under reporting” to explain the difference between actual complaints and what “the study says”.

    In a meeting several years ago with the former Commandant, he complained that this biggest problem was “plebes with cel phones.” The reason for this is that when someone chewed out a plebe for a uniform problem or not making their bed, he heard about it from the parent’s attorney threatening to sue the Academy. If parents are on such a short trigger about pretend slights, why isn’t the Academy, shipping companies and unions inundated with civil suits for subjecting KP Midshipmen to a dangerous shipboard environment?

  2. To limit the tattle-tail stuff, It seems to me that a cell phone policy would be a first place to start. As 60 year old dinosaurs, we are late adopters to all of this technology, so maybe I am missing something but it seems like the school should try to de-emphasize their use. Modern cell phones are a great tool ashore but how useful are they at sea? Our grads work in a very different environment from the rest of the world.

  3. I asked Helis how he knew “federal” vessels were any safer and he couldn’t come up with an answer except there were more “controls” (i.e. regulations) in place. Also, he was unable to state what percentage of the midshipman had been interviewed for SASH. THE BOTTOM LINE (cliche), is this: EXACTLY, PERCENTAGE-WISE, HOW MUCH SAFER ARE FEDERAL VESSELS (MSC, ROS) THAN COMMERCIAL VESSELS? Helis will go off the rails if an independent survey proves what we all know.

    [post edited by moderator to remove an assertion that I do not think is supported]

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