[Updated] Where does the buck stop for this leadership failure?

[Updated to reflect this report from the Maritime Administrator. Updates are highlighted.]

My inbox was inundated today by reports of Academy midshipmen returning from winter leave to find dorm rooms empty of beds, desks, other furniture, and piles of shrink-wrapped new furniture scattered around outside of the barracks.  All I could think of was “what is it this time?”

In a nutshell, winter leave ended today at 1800. Midshipmen returned yesterday and today to find that a furniture contractor who was replacing the furniture in Fourth and Fifth Companies over the leave period had not come close to completing the job. From what I can determine, approximately 100 midshipmen are displaced from their rooms and from what I hear, the Academy is scrambling to find space for them to sleep. The word is that some are being placed in other mids’ rooms (sleeping on the floor [confirmed, but reportedly the three who slept on the floor opted to do so. 33 others were provided a bunk in another room]) and others are sleeping in Land Hall (where, reportedly, the heat is not working). [According to the Maritime Administrator, no one slept in Land Hall. However, my report on this came directly from the parent of a midshipman who was supposed to sleep there. Perhaps that changed after my post; or perhaps the parent was incorrect. I’ve contacted the parent to see if I can get a clarification and will update when and if I do.]

In addition to having their lives scrambled by having to find temporary sleeping accommodations, the midshipmen will not have sufficient desks  to study for their classes or places to store their textbooks. Their personal belongings were stored before they left on leave in Zero Deck lockers and now, as classes commence, the midshipmen have no place to put their uniforms, textbooks, and personal items. Oh, and it appears from photographs I’ve seen that the floors were badly damaged in the process of furniture removal.

While Academy personnel are suggesting that the problem will be solved quickly, even as soon as tomorrow, the reports I am getting suggest that there is no way that is possible. [The Maritime Administrator believes it will all be squared away by Saturday.]

Academy leadership is already looking to deflect the blame elsewhere. I’m getting reports they  initially blamed the midshipmen, claiming they had not properly prepared their rooms to allow the contractors to complete the job. The Administration quickly backed off of that false narrative and switched to blaming the contractor.

Much of the outrage has been expressed — naturally and properly — by parents who cannot believe that their midshipmen are being subjected to this.  The immediate impact on the midshipmen is important and real — USMMA has a grueling academic schedule and disruptions like this make it all the harder to keep up.  But, this latest debacle at the Academy is also a symptom of the much larger problem that we have been documenting on this blog since it started — a complete failure of leadership.

Where to start?

  1. It must have been obvious last week that the work was not getting done in a timely fashion. If he was on campus, Superintendent Helis could not have missed the piles of new furniture stacked outside the barracks as he drove to and from his quarters. The problem was obvious to anyone. Why did this spiral out of control?
  2. [The contractor notified the Academy that it was having difficulty with the job; while the contractor apparently claimed it could still “meet schedule,” at a minimum, that should have heightened oversight by the Academy. Moreover, it appears [but this still needs to be clarified] that the contractor had 20 days to do the job but there were only 14 days during the leave. So meeting the schedule did not necessarily mean getting it done before the midshipmen returned from leave. Again, the absence of good oversight looms large in this fiasco.]

  3. Why didn’t Academy leadership inform the chain of command?  (If I am interpreting a post on the USMMA National Parents Association Facebook page correctly, it was the NPA that brought Maritime Administrator Mark H. Buzby into the loop on this. If RADM Buzby learned of this from an outside group rather than the people who report to him, then that speaks volumes about where the problem lies — a good leader does not cover up problems and hope that his boss doesn’t find out about them.)
  4. Why weren’t the parents and midshipmen notified sooner?  I’ve heard from one Academy supporter who dropped off midshipmen at the Academy yesterday and the problem was apparent to him then. If it was obvious to an untrained eye, then, how is it possible that the Academy did not have contingency plans in place by yesterday and immediately notify all midshipmen to expect problems upon their return? (Here are photos taken today that show how obvious the problem is.)
  5. How about with the fact that Academy leadership’s original inclination was to blame the problem on the midshipmen? Sound familiar?  Remember how the Academy’s reaccreditation problems were actually almost exclusively leadership issues involving Helis and MARAD/former Maritime Administrator Jaenichen and yet they crated a false narrative that  blamed the accreditation failure on SASH during sea year? See the pattern?
  6. Who was minding the store? There was a set period of time for the contractor to complete this job while the midshipmen were on leave.[As explained above, it now appears that the time to complete the job extended beyond the date the midshipmen were to return from the winter leave (making the problem a likelihood rather than a possibility). If so, that is truly an “own goal” on the part of the Academy administration. The Maritime Administrator is following up on this.] Were any Academy personnel serving as the “owner’s rep” and monitoring progress to make sure than the job was completed on time?
  7. This is not the first over-the-winter-leave mishap. Over the 2013-14 winter leave, a power failure caused the heating system in several academic buildings to cease working.  Plumbing pipes froze; buildings were badly damaged; and the repair costs exceeded one million dollars. This same administration blamed that debacle on a cat that knocked out the power. Perhaps the administration did not want to ask hard questions like, “Who was minding the store” and “How is it that no one noticed that the building temperatures had dropped below freezing until they reached the point that pipes were bursting” because the answers to those questions would have pointed the blame back at the administration. But, if those questions had been asked, maybe this week’s problems would have been avoided.
  8. There have been too many other leadership failures on Superintendent Helis’ watch. The most obvious one was the failure of Helis’ leadership that almost cost the Academy its accreditation. Then there was the incalculable damage (which continues to this day) to midshipmen training by the sea year stand down. In this shameful period, Helis created the false narrative that there was a SASH problem during sea year, which hid his role in causing accreditation failure. Furthermore, where SASH actually had become a problem — at the Academy — it had become worse under his leadership and, as described here, the Inspector General found that the Helis administration had failed to implement numerous parts of its action plan for addressing the SASH issue.

As I posted here, RADM Buzby has been personally engaged with the leaders of the maritime industry as part of the effort to restore sea year — one of the four pillars of the Academy’s educational program — to the stellar experience it was before the stand down. Despite his efforts, key portions of the industry have still not agreed to accept Kings Point cadets for sea year.  I think there’s a reason for the reluctance: Why would they want to take Kings Point cadets when the architect of both the stand down and the blood libel against an entire industry remains at the helm of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy?

In the merchant marine, as in the US Navy, a significant casualty results in “top down” discipline. When the command structure loses confidence in a captain following a collision at sea or other significant event, the captain is relieved of his duties and either terminated or transferred to a desk job where he can do no further harm. That consequence seems harsh to those who don’t go to sea, but the captain sets the tone for the whole ship. If the leader sets the wrong tone, the entire crew and ship itself suffers.

At a federal academy, the “captain” is the superintendent. The tone he sets is all-important. It’s not just about accountability. The superintendent has to be the ultimate leadership role model. Equally important, the midshipmen need to know that they can trust the superintendent to look out for them. The midshipmen do not trust Helis because he has failed them in the past and he sacrificed their sea year experience for his false narrative.

In the Academy’s case, there has not been just one casualty. There have been a string of systemic failures that all point to the leadership at the Academy. Thus, it would not be harsh — and it is long past the time — for some top down discipline.  It is time to relieve Superintendent Helis and his entire leadership team of their duties.

UPDATE:  After I had drafted this post but before I had a chance to post it, RADM Buzby and I spoke. He told me that he had spoken to Tom Wesley of the National Parents Association and was reaching out to me and others because he wanted to get the word out to the midshipmen and stakeholders that he was getting personally involved with the furniture issue. He confirmed that he has cancelled his plans for tomorrow and will be at the Academy with two primary goals:  “get to the bottom of” the furniture fiasco and “roll up my sleeves and make sure that the problem is addressed.”  It is ridiculous that the Maritime Administrator has to step in to address a problem that would never have occurred had there been even marginally competent administrative oversight.[Not only that, the Maritime Administrator states “Last evening I informed Secretary Chao’s Chief of Staff of the situation and promised to keep him updated on any significant developments. The Secretary knows that I traveled up to KP today.” In other words, poor leadership by the Helis administration caused what should have been a minor issue to become a Cabinet-level issue.

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29 Comments

  1. This is in fact not the only time buildings have had major casualties over winter leave and the 2013 2014 was the first the second was in 2015-2016 where a pipe had frozen in another building and if it wasn’t for midshipmen who were paying attention and had to use the head then the entirety of DOIT would have been destroyed due to water damage. The mistake went unnoticed for at least 6 hours and should have only been noticed by security in the wee hours of a Saturday morning but instead a midshipman located it and took immediate action. If it wasnt for this midshipman the entire IT department would have had to be replaced for a massive amount of money and labor instead of the repair of a few classrooms a whole server racks and data pertaining to the academy would have had to be redone and that is assuming back ups are completed and stored in a different building which is highly unlikely

  2. Many a Captain has been relieved due to ‘loss of confidence in their ability to lead’. Admiral Buzby is very familiar with this in the Navy and needs to take action.

  3. When ship runs aground in the Navy the Captianof the ship is removed immediately. No question. As you refer Helis is the Captain of this ship

    Helis, Dunlap and Demers should be removed and fired immediately

    Add the ever promoted Zero Deck their flagship of a project. Well there were no curtain drains installed and in many places the paint is uuzzzing off the walls and running down the walls since the walls are getting wet from behind. Helis again, Dunlap and Demers again

    They continue to disrespect these fine young Americans and get away with it. As they sit warm and cozy in their homes and didn’t lead at all and should have emailed as you refer and then have been walking around the campus when the Midshipmen returned. But nope no where to be found.

  4. Instead of Mids sleeping on the floors of Land Hall, why was not the order given to all Officers who live on campus, in government housing, to open their doors to Mids and give them a place to sleep in living rooms, dining rooms, empty bedrooms? Of course that would require a leader with Compassion.

    That Buzby is going to “roll up his sleeves” is commendable. Walk in, suspend activities for the day, rally the Mids outside, and tell “we will clean up this mess in an hour with the help of all of you, and Senior Leadership”. Then he should step down, point at a Mid, and say “can you help me with this desk?” The Mids would go into action and be done by Lunch. Have one group outside, one group inside, and a few to carry empty boxes to the outside group for disposal. Make a mountain of trash, conveniently in the Supers front yard.

    If any Company Officer, Commandant Staff, Senior Leadership, or Professor in a Merchant Marine Uniform is not helping and physically working, then they should be told to return to quarters and dealt with later.

  5. This problem lies squarely at the feet of Helis and Dunlap. Of course his initial instinct is to blame the Mid’s. Does that surprise anyone? Demers is the Facilities Manager or AKA (I do anything the Superintendent needs), yes he was overheard saying that. How much more damage/incompetence/intentional or otherwise will this administration put up with? That is the $100,000,000 question.

  6. I’m genuinely curious what the Administrations role is in the procurement process. I don’t mean to let them off the hook, but I’m interested in what oversight function they serve, or was this more a GSA, DOT, or NAVFAC problem? Like what tools does the superintendent have to compel a contractor to adequately staff or execute a project?

    • According to Facebook posts by a recent grad who was working in Wiley Hall, the administration was actively involved. But that begs the question. The real question is why no one at the Academy discovered sooner that the contractor was not able to complete the job before the mids returned. This was a slow motion train wreck and should have been obvious late last week (if not sooner). At that point, the administration should have mobilized. I’m not saying that it should have completed the work; but it should have implemented a contingency plan that at least assured that the midshipmen had places to sleep when they returned. And then parents and midshipmen should have been notified as to what to expect so that they could plan accordingly. With notice, some would have arrived earlier so that they could deal with the mess and still be ready to commence classes. Maybe someone could have invited midshipmen with usable rooms to return early and set up the room with a mattress to accommodate one additional mid and help move furniture in exchange for a free long weekend or credit towards extra duty. There are so many things that could have been done with proper leadership. It’s the continued leadership failure that is so disappointing.

  7. Ahhh. Helis wants to both ways. He said his hands were tied under the prior MARAD leadership because they took decision making away from the academy and did it in Washington. He made that claim to the accreditation agency as well.

    Well it was given back to him and the academy and look what happened. All on him Dunlap and demers. He wears two shoes and dances depending on who is asking. They want decision making they got it and screwed this one up

  8. What a sh*t show! I plan on having t-shirts printed with “Get the Helis OUT” and giving one to each M/N. Also I volunteer to drive the moving van. What time should I be there?

  9. The ironic part of all of this is that the school’s basic goal, other than teaching seamanship itself, is to teach logistics management, which technopedia defines as a “supply chain management component that is used to meet customer demand through the planning , control and implementation of the effective movement and storage of related information, goods and services from origin to destination.”
    I think it would be accurate to describe the current situation as a breakdown of that process?
    In all fairness to Helis, he may deserve a break to the extent that under the stupid “top down” MARAD procurement rules cited in the Middle States report he was probably not responsible for the contractor, the terms of the contract or the scheduling of the renovation.

    Under any circumstance, however, the blame falls on him and his team, at least to the extent that once it became obvious that the rooms were not going to be ready on time immediate action to address the situation should have been taken (as described by Mr. Simpson above). Remember , the school also teaches leadership, which is certainly called for in this situation.

    In my younger days, I ran a restaurant. There were many days when I showed up and several employees did not. As a result, to my consternation, the dining room was not ready for business. I called everyone else in early to help get the job done, and a lot of it I did myself before they go there.

    It wasn’t my job per se, BUT IT WAS MY RESPONSIBILITY.

    • Not responsible for the contactor, Sir, I beg to differ with you, RADM Helis, also happens to be the instalation commander and in that perview is ultimately responsible for everything that takes place at the academy. As a
      retiree with more years of service than I can remember, nothing and I mean nothing ever circumvents the
      Captain responsibilty of hs vessel, of his installation or of his watch. As Presdent Truman was quoted “The buck stops here”. Not the contractors fault, certainly not the midshipmens fault, nor the gate guard, search as he may
      the Commandant only needs to look in the mirror to find whose at fault and publicly apolgize for failing to do his job.

    • Yes. He got the word out last night through the NPA and KPS (see the update at the end of this post) and I’m sure other avenues that he was coming up to find out what the heck had happened and try to help get the situation straightened out.

    • Curious if Buzby sat with the Mids on the same floor, or elevate himself on the platform? Was Helis in attendance? Did the Commandant bother showing up? What about that No-See Ass’t Super, what’s her name? Admiral Ghost?

    • Yes, Mr. Buzby is here currently and he did eat with us (the MIDS). He wished us all a happy holiday, but did not speak of the current situation in 3rd battalion. Furthermore, he toured all of the barracks with the Commandant and the Regimental Officer, but there was no sight of admiral Helis.

  10. Totally unacceptable display of leadership (or lack of). Enough is enough. Time for a change! I believe that current regulations allow such change at this time.

  11. Just saw a bunch of pictures of the furniture piled up outside the dorms. Unbelievabe. I can’t tell if it’s the new stuff or the old stuff but I do know it’s going to snow alot tonight and tomorrow. If it’s the new stuff, they better get it covered or it will get ruined.

  12. During the most recent Homecoming weekend, I visited my old room in 6th Company (Jones Hall), which is now (supposed to be) the home of 5th Company. When more than 5 curious Midshipmen started to congregate, I started to get concerned, since the limit in my days at KP and as a Plebe was 3. I was assured 5 is the new number, likely because during the past barracks renovations, bunks had to be crammed in one room, desks in another, to make the limited space workable.

    Then, I asked the most pressing question, which I can assure you, has a lot to do with Helis and his leadership style. I asked, what their No. 1 complaint would be. All agreed, that the Plan of the Day is a joke, that assemblies and functions are posted and often not adhered to. Those that will show up to lead the task either appear late or not at all, leading to an unwarranted waste of time.

    These Midshipmen were correct. Shortly afterwards, the Memorial Arbors Ceremony was slated for 1115 hours, but I noticed the entire Plebe class had assembled one hour earlier. Admiral Helis and the Commandant happened to saunter by, but did not intervene to tell the 250 odd Plebes to return to their barracks. I was dumbfounded they would not care or know enough about the schedule on such a public day, and I was confirmed in my observation, that it is not the Midshipmen who are to blame in many of these incidents. Though this is a small vignette compared to the furniture fiasco, it is symptomatic of what is truly (not) happening at the Academy.

    A Note: that Admiral Helis would not have the courtesy to meet with RADM Buzby is another sign of a pending change, which I hope will come sooner than later. I may not know the actual and corroborated facts here, but my sentiment remains the same. I admire RADM Buzby for his steadfast and unflinching leadership, as even among KP graduates, he is an outstanding example. His mere presence will exude confidence.

    • Just a clarification: We don’t know that Helis did not meet with RADM Buzby. There are anecdotal reports that he was not seen by midshipmen today, but that doesn’t mean that he did not meet with anyone. As you will see in a post in the next hour or so, RADM Buzby has given a report of today’s activities and in that report he mentions that he spoke with Helis. Whether that was in person or on the telephone, we don’t know.

      • As someone who was seeing the Superintendent on a weekly basis prior to graduation I found as a midshipman I typically was able to have the best access “before” the work day (0800) as he would try and do work early in the morning so during the day the various meetings and phone calls that would have to happen could take place without a midshipman disrupting a meeting or waiting for a few hours awkwardly in Wiley Hall with other Higher Ups in the area. Usually the meeting lasted at most 5 minutes, but even at that as someone who had plenty of paperwork over seeing areas I could understand why he may not have been wanting to be disrupted during the work day so the meetings he did have were typically for the betterment of the midshipman he just had an interest on my status. It should be noted I rarely if ever saw him prior to this for more than a passing good morning as well.

  13. Here is a perspective that is in each of our minds and hearts but has not been posted. Helis is responsible for these fine young men and women and he was no where to be found before yesterday or since. Their safety, education, quality of life, and their well being.

    Why does congress, sec Chao, and the American people trust him with our midshipmen’s lives, future and safety? He has demonstrated with his action, or inaction, hat he doesn’t not give a flying hoot about them.

    So why should the American taxpayers and the members of congress or the sec of trans give a hoot about him. Throw him out. Out of leadership of the Midshipmen out of government housing and off the property. Immediately. He talks a good game but his action speak volumes. Why is anyone inside the beltway buying his nonsense ?

  14. I would like to know what it takes to remove an incompetent leadership staff. There is no reason that our, and I emphasis, our academy , can not be the guiding flagship that sets the standard for the other military academies to
    emulate. We have the best student body, the best alumni and the best parents, all we lack is leadership at the top
    echelon of the academy. Maybe Admiral Busby can steer us in the right direction……

  15. In fairness to Admiral Helis, I am informed by my mid that those who slept in Land hall did so voluntarily and that there was heat. I say this , because we should not use “fake news”(for want of better term) as a basis for our complaints when in fact there is so much “real news” upon which they can be based.
    In a vacuum, the current situation would simply be an administrative screw up, either at the Academy or MARAD level, and life would go on. The regiment, as we have seen, has come together to make sure that mids have a place to sleep, even if it’s not the most comfortable or satisfactory. That’s not the end of the world, given the fact that these kids will one day be living on ships, bases, in tents or perhaps even outdoors somewhere, depending on the assignments they eventually get. The library, Land Hall and I suspect Melville hall are available for studying in a quiet atmosphere if needed.
    Simply put, while this is bad, it’s not the end of the world. Our kids can handle this.
    What makes this a problem, is that it is like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Simply put, is anyone really surprised that the Academy managed to screw up a furniture delivery?
    It’s just another in an ongoing series of problems that are reflected in the Middle States Report regarding the management problems at the school. Be it uniform shortages, Navy Reserve pin shortages on Acceptance Day or a lack of communication to, and input from parents, alumni and the mids themselves, it’s just another example of why people who actually read the report understood that the whole SASH debate was a smokescreen to cover up mismanagement. (BTW, that doesn’t mean I don’t think that there is a SASH problem, just that it was not the heart of the report.)
    So far, Buzby has been magnificent. The fact that he actually came up from Washington to see what was going on demonstrates that, even if he wasn’t able to accomplish anything immediately,he has an awreness of both his responsibility to the mids and to the institution. Fairness also dictates that we consider that Helis may not even be responsible directly for this particular mess. It may be a MARAD problem from the previous administration. Nonetheless, his actions over the last few years (I can’t speak to this directly because I wasn’t here) and in particular the last 18 months since the stand down was announced, have left him in a position where stakeholders (rightly or wrongly) simply have no faith in him or anything he says. He may be a good man, and I honor his service, but it’s time for him to go.

    • I have also confirmed that midshipmen slept in Land Hall, now confirmed directly to me by a midshipman as well as by “Parent.” (And it was not Parent’s mid who confirmed it to me.) Whether it was voluntary or not, RADM Buzby was informed that no one slept there, so he was misinformed.

      I’ve received conflicting reports about the heat in Land Hall. While I was originally told there was no heat, I think it is more accurate to say that the heating system presently does not heat it adequately. Thus, it is more a matter of it being a comfort issue rather than mids sleeping in a building with

        no

      heat on a night where outside temperatures were below freezing.

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