Written by Carol Frank Friday, 27 January 2012 00:00
The campus of the United States Merchant Marine Academy with its breathtaking views of Long Island Sound, its stately buildings and grand history is a source of pride in Great Neck. We see the midshipmen jogging through our streets, volunteering for community projects and enjoy hearing their marching band in local parades. The haunting sound of taps being played at night echoes through quiet streets in Kings Point. Graduation days have brought high officials here, including former President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many other dignitaries.
For the last several years, questions and rumors about the fiscal health and welfare of the Academy have surfaced and circulated and then gone dormant. But the recent evacuation of 39 midshipmen, who were rescued from a dorm with dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, underscored the timeliness of having those questions answered.
Had the odorless, colorless, deadly gas been emitted from the faulty water heater after midnight, the story might have been tragic. There were no CO detectors installed in the dorms even though colleges and universities across the country are required to have them. Federal facilities are exempt from state and local laws governing such safeguards. Now, they have been installed at the Academy.
The mission of the Academy is most important. According to a blue ribbon panel report issued in 2010, 38,000 transits by U.S. flag vessels transported 2.3 billion metric tons of cargo bound for foreign and domestic markets in 2008. Operating highly complex shipping systems is essential to the health and recovery of our economy. The merchant marine also plays a major role in responding to natural disasters and in stemming the rising danger of international piracy.
The intricate shipping systems, both on the sea and on shore, rely on highly skilled and knowledgable people, “men and women who are intelligent, dedicated, well-educated, and competent. The purpose of the U.S. Merchant Marine academy is to ensure that such trained leaders are available to serve the nation’s merchant marine,” stated the report.
This report was set into motion in May of 2009 when Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood appointed a “Blue Ribbon” panel to investigate the infrastructure of the Academy. The report, entitled “Red Skies in the Morning” referring to the maritime adage, “Red skies in morning, sailors take warning” was just that...a warning. A warning that facilities that shelter and feed midshipmen are in such poor condition they cannot meet the needs of the regiment, a warning that a lack of investment in engineering labs and marine simulators will result in the decline of the school, a warning that, if left unaddressed, the school might be unable to attract and keep the quality of teaching staff that the academy has had in the past, and a warning that such conditions, if ignored, could culminate in the loss of its accreditation as a college. It concluded that the Academy had reached a “tipping point.”
The report stated clearly that the USMMA needs to be recapitalized and requires a bold and comprehensive strategic plan to guide that investment. The report noted that “the deplorable conditions that currently exist did not occur overnight, and it will take a 10 to 15 year commitment to reverse the current trend.”
The panel praised the faculty and staff, reporting that they were “doing a remarkable job despite being hampered by a a lack of modernized classrooms, simulators, lab equipment and library resources.”
The question now is: Are the recommendations of the report being seriously addressed? Is the Academy receiving the infusion of capital necessary to modernize the campus, to properly maintain the property, to attract and keep high caliber staff and students and to keep its accreditation?
The Record spoke with Congressman Gary Ackerman on Jan. 13 following the Jan. 8 evacuation. He had just visited the Academy and met with administrative staff. He believes that investing in the national infrastructure is not only a good investment, but a proven way of turning the economy around. And more specifically, he believes that the Academy is too vital an institution to allow it to deteriorate.
But he made a blunt assessment, “In this political climate with the Republicans in control of Congress and their strategy to block everything proposed by President Obama, it is unlikely that the level of funding for capital projects will be enough” to carry out all of the recommendations of the report.
As the Academy does not currently have a public information officer, the Record’s questions were referred to staff at the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration in D.C. (An individual has been hired for the vacant public information position at the Academy and will be coming onboard in March.) Our written questions were then sent to the Academy’s Interim Superintendent and Academic Dean, Dr. Shashi Kumar who responded to the Record’s questions. His answers are printed here in full.