USMMA's Accreditation "May Be In Jeopardy"

File image courtesy USMMA

Published Jul 1, 2016 6:49 AM by The Maritime Executive

On Thursday, the United States Merchant Marine Academy released documentation related to its reaccreditation process with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) – including a letter warning that "its accreditation may be in jeopardy because of insufficient evidence that the institution is currently in compliance" with multiple requirements. 

Among other remediation efforts requested, the letter called for an update next March on "steps taken to build a climate of mutual trust and respect on campus and during the Sea Year," the core at-sea training program for midshipmen, which USMMA and the Maritime Administration suspended shortly before the date of MSCHE's warning letter. In comments earlier this month, Maritime Administrator Paul "Chip" Jaenichen cited a pattern of sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimidation and other improper shipboard behavior as the reason behind the temporary Sea Year "stand down."

MSCHE also requested updates on improvements to a wide range of Academy processes for institutional planning, asset allocation, budgeting, financial controls, governance structures, administrative staff qualifications, and institutional self-assessment.

The letter's warning is based on a May 2016 report by an external review team. The team – over half of whose members were from federal service academies or state maritime academies – found that while USMMA met nine of 14 required accreditation standards, it had "opportunities for improvement" on several fronts: "lack of institutional authority over human resources, finance, and procurement; linking resource allocation to planning as well as to goal and mission achievement; important administrative positions that remain vacant; and institutional response to sexual assault and harassment."

The team noted that sexual assault and harassment had been an ongoing problem at USMMA for years, and while the academy has taken steps to address the "undeniable and disturbing" frequency of incidents, the reviewers found that these efforts were "insufficient and ineffective." They noted that formal reports of sexual assault were few – 14 over the last five years – but that the number of female students who say they experience sexual assault at USMMA remains much higher on surveys. [This is a pattern consistent with sexual assault in higher education generally; the Association of American Universities estimates formal reports at only one quarter of actual incidents.] The review team issued a requirement for USMMA to improve its campus climate with respect to sexual assault and harassment, and further said that USMMA "must take demonstrable steps in preparation for and upon return from the Sea Year experience."

Human resources functions also received scrutiny. "[We] could not find faculty, staff, or administrative leaders who claimed that Human Resources was meeting the needs of the Academy . . . The inflexible and indifferent approach of Human Resources personnel coupled with [their] direct reporting relationship to MARAD introduces conflicting objectives, severely slows the hiring of employees and, it is widely reported, takes the [USMMA] hiring unit out of hiring decisions." The difficulty with lack of in-house administrative control extended to other functions as well, and the team found that in order to meet minimum standards, "the Superintendent must have the means, authority, and responsibility, assigned or delegated from DOT and/or MARAD as appropriate, over the institutional functions of personnel hiring, financial planning and management, and procurement required to effectively and efficiently accomplish the Academy’s mission."

In a letter May 20, USMMA Superintendent RAdm. James A. Helis concurred with the report, especially with its concern over the ongoing issues with sexual assault and harassment, and said that all midshipmen returning from Sea Year would be given a detailed survey to identify the extent of issues aboard. He indicated that USMMA, MARAD and DOT were already taking steps to ensure that all required administrative changes would be met (subject to approval by Congress where required), and that they were confident that the academy would be within compliance before the deadline. USMMA says that it has two years to implement MSCHE’s required changes.