[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?
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
[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.]
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.