The Washington Post
Merchant Marine Academy criticized
Report finds aging facilities, lack of diversity and outdated curriculum
A congressionally ordered review of the federal sailors academy concluded the school was beset with problems including aging facilities, a striking lack of diversity and a curriculum that was failing to keep up with the needs of an evolving shipping industry.
The National Academy of Public Administration said that widespread problems at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy had festered for years, with school leaders lacking the wherewithal to solve them. The school, the group said, had “lost its way.”
“The findings and recommendations of this report address long-standing issues that put the safety and health of the midshipmen and the entire USMMA community in peril,” wrote Teresa W. Gerton, the public administration academy’s chief executive.
Unlike the nation’s service academies that train military officers and are part of the Defense Department, the Merchant Marine school is part of the Department of Transportation. The review’s authors issued 67 recommendations and said it was up to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to launch a task force and overhaul the Kings Point, N.Y., school.
The findings are likely to only intensify scrutiny of the academy, which has been embroiled in a reckoning over sexual assault after a midshipman came forward in the fall and described being raped while training on a commercial ship. The new report, based on an investigation carried out between May 2020 and October 2021, says the school is doing too little to protect students from assaults and stamp out sexual harassment on campus and at sea but makes clear its problems are far more widespread and affect almost every aspect of life there.
The Transportation Department said it has already taken steps to start modernizing facilities at the academy and to revamp sexual assault protections. The department said it was establishing the task force recommended by the reviewers.
The school is less well known than other academies like the U.S. Military Academy, but it occupies a prominent role in the shipping industry and has a tight knit alumni community. The school trains students who earn a commercial shipping license and a military commission in addition to their academic degree, and feeds an industry that plays a key role in national defense.
But the review called into question whether the academy was an effective training ground for future leaders, saying that much of its curriculum was focused on preparing midshipmen for junior jobs.
A grueling schedule, which includes 11-month academic years and almost a full year at sea, leaves students with little opportunity to develop their interests, the review found — and contributes to intense stress and poor mental health.
“While USMMA is producing licensed merchant mariners, it is not meeting many other requirements and expectations for a federal agency and federal service academy, and it is not adequately planning and prepared for the future,” said Judith Youngman, the chairwoman of the review panel and emeritus professor of political science at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
The academy’s facilities are also out of date, the review found. Midshipmen interviewed by the investigators said old buildings — with pipes dripping in classrooms and mold in dorm rooms — were a distraction, felt unsafe and put off prospective students. The report says the school needs “substantial investment.”
The review also found that the academy was struggling to attract a diverse student body, faring worse at recruiting women and students of color than the military academies. Seventy-nine percent of students are White, compared with 54 percent of the nation’s college-aged population.
“USMMA faces internal and external pressure to preserve a culture that centers on students who fit long-standing norms of USMMA and the maritime industry, i.e., white and male,” the review concluded.
The reviewers dedicated a chapter of their report to the academy’s handling of sexual assault and harassment. They said the school needed to close a wide gap between incidents that get reported and rates of abuse described in surveys of students, addressing concerns that victims will be blamed or retaliated against.
“I know numerous females who have reported their stories, whether on campus or out at sea, and most of the time they are swept under the rug,” one person interviewed by investigators said. “They always ask them what you were doing or wearing. They try to make the victim responsible for what happened to them when they aren’t responsible for what happened to them.”