Department of Transportation seeks corrective actions at marine academy

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Anthony Foxx, the U.S. secretary of transportation, said his department was taking a hands-on approach to address sexual assault and harassment at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the school’s accreditation warning.
Foxx’s comments were in response to a letter sent by 13 members of Congress, including Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who chairs the academy’s Board of Visitors, and Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), who voiced their support for the academy and asked  what steps the Department of Transportation was taking to address the issues.
“The department has chosen to take a proactive approach to institutionalizing change within the entire culture at the academy and its connection with Sea Year,” he said in an Oct. 25 letter. “Over the next several months, independent experts experienced in assessing institutional and organizational culture will examine all aspects of USMMA culture, both on campus and at sea.”
“As these experts attempt to identify root causes and offer possible short-term and long-term corrective actions to address these issues, resumption of Sea Year on commercial vessels will be delayed,” Foxx added.
In July, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education issued a warning to the academy about its accreditation status, citing the school’s failure to meet five of the agency’s 14 standards.
The academy’s Sea Year, when midshipmen spend an academic year aboard a merchant marine vessel, was scrutinized by the accrediting agency.
The Middle States report said the marine academy needs to take steps “to build a climate of mutual trust and respect on campus and during the Sea Year.”
Academy officials suspended the program on June 15 to hold student training on acceptable conduct in regard to bullying and sexual harassment, but in July the program was partly reinstated to allow midshipmen to serve Sea Year on federal ships, but not on commercial vessels.
In their Sept. 2 letter, the 13 members of Congress asked Foxx, Paul Jaenichen, administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration,  and Rear Adm. James Helis, the academy’s superintendent, what efforts they have made to address the Middle States Commission’s warning and how the suspension of Sea Year would affect the ability of midshipmen to graduate on time.
Foxx said the academy is looking at ways to  change its program for sexual assault awareness and prevention, which includes midshipmen training and the creation of reporting and response procedures.
He said that the academy is working with the U.S. Maritime Administration and Department of Transportation to develop a new “strategic plan” that calls for more involvement from all levels of people associated with the academy, from midshipmen to administrators to stakeholders.
Additionally, Foxx said, the academy recently filled vacant positions, including the director of public safety and security, director of admissions and director of academy financial management.
The director of institutional assessment was reassigned from the dean’s office to the superintendent’s office to “shift focus from just academic assessment to institutional issues,” he said.
Foxx said there would be no changes in the academy’s graduation requirements, and midshipmen who do not have the required number of days at sea to graduate would still have opportunities to be commissioned in the U.S. Armed Forces.
He also said midshipmen’s active duty accession will be deferred until they graduate.
The Middle States Commission will  come to the academy for a follow-up visit next March to see what steps it has taken since April to address the commission’s accreditation standards.

By Joe Nikic

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