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OPINION: Massachusetts Maritime Academy Graduates Get Watery and Confusing Sendoff

Published Jun 29, 2006 12:01 AM by The Maritime Executive

A dreary, wet summer day provided a less than perfect backdrop for the graduation ceremonies at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on Saturday. Had the sun been shining, the shadow of the Academy’s new and highly acclaimed wind turbine might have draped itself across the dais where Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) gave the commencement address to the class of 2006. Instead, the rhythmic hum of the blades was lost in the alternating waves of hard rain that pelted the tents. Also (apparently) escaping the attention of most of those in attendance was the irony of allowing the one individual who has consistently voted against most of what Academy graduates for the last fifty years hold dear, give the commencement speech.

Earlier this spring, MMA President Richard Gurnon was asked why the Commonwealth’s senior senator would bother to give the commencement address at the Academy. He responded simply, “We asked, and he said yes.” Fair enough. And Kennedy’s speech was, in contrast to the one given by President Bush at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy less than a week before, benign and generally free of political rhetoric. Speaking to what has traditionally been a solidly middle class and conservative crowd, Kennedy extolled the virtues of hard work and pledged to help ensure that the cost of a higher education would not be the deciding factor in whether young people in the future could attend college. Steering clear of hot button issues, the speech was well received by the throngs of proud parents.

Indeed, Kennedy has been a friend to the Academy in more ways than one. Absent his help on Capitol Hill, it is certain that MMA’s current training ship would not be nearly as good a platform for the development of the next generation of America’s future commercial mariners. On the other side of the aisle, they call it pork. At the Academy, he is hailed as the guy who got the job done. Beyond this, Kennedy has for years extended the honor of crewing his private sloop to Academy cadets. The tradition has cemented an unlikely relationship between a privileged and powerful family and the sons and daughters of the middle and working classes.

As the class of 2006 drove off into the rain, the voting record of the Massachusetts Democrat follows them into the workplace. Against drilling in Alaska, LNG marine terminals in New England, nuclear energy and, apparently, alternative (renewable) wind energy - at least where it affects his recreational view - Kennedy has limited MMA graduates for years as they pursued sustainable employment.

Take the Academy's wind turbine, for example. The fact that Richard Gurnon expects it will save the Commonwealth $300,000 annually in energy costs for many years to come, is not likely to change the Senator's position on the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound. And yet, the new and popular shoreside power plant engineering degrees offered by MMA would be a perfect fit for this type of technology.

These are good times at MMA, where Academy officials boast of “100% placement” of graduates in jobs that can command starting salaries of $60,000+ per year. That could easily change; and fast. As the seagoing Jones Act billets go away while America waits for additional sources of domestic energy and cargo, Kennedy leads the way in preventing the almost certain prospect of replacing declining, domestic crude oil production. A new generation of U.S. flag tankers would, of course, carry that production to domestic refineries. In New England, two of the 40-plus proposed domestic LNG marine terminal projects now under consideration by MARAD, the USCG and FERC are straining for approval. If the Kennedy family has its way, neither will come to fruition. Along the way, and although there is plenty of blame to go around for everyone, Kennedy has also done nothing to stem the tide of declining U.S. flagged shipping assets. And all the sailboat rides from Hyannis port and refits for the Academy’s training ship can’t make up for all of that.

Preceding Kennedy at the podium was Christine Griffin, a 1983 graduate of the Academy whose journey to her current position as Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been anything but easy. Partially disabled in an automobile accident during her time at the Academy, she not only returned to complete her degree but also spent the next twenty-three years providing service to the Academy in both official and unofficial capacities. She even served as MMA President from July 1993 to January 1994. Gurnon describes her as “one of the most courageous people that he has ever met.” The awarding of her honorary degree coincides with the 25th anniversary of the first class of women to graduate from the school. All in all, a fitting tribute and the perfect opportunity to salute diversity and the progress made at MMA over the years.

If Kennedy’s speech was meant to evoke a “feel-good” aura for the day, Griffin’s was anything but. Her salute to the 300+ women who have graduated from the Academy since 1981 was cheapened by her unnecessary swipe at Lee Harrington, who guided the school as President through 1970’s and then into the early 80’s. Without naming but leaving absolutely no doubt as to whom she was speaking about, Griffin quoted him as saying that women would enter the Academy “over my dead body.” She then went on to describe her personal discomfort with his old-school style during her early years at MMA.

In the end, it wasn’t the advent of women on campus which claimed Harrington’s life. Cancer got the best of him back in 1980, so he wasn’t around on Saturday to defend himself. Griffin would do well to remember that it was Harrington who helped get the dormitories in which she slept for four years built and that he was also at the helm for the conversion of the Academy into an accredited, four-year institution that awards Bachelor’s degrees in addition to its traditional role of preparing young people for marine oriented careers. Like the Academy’s current leader, Richard Gurnon, Harrington had his supporters and detractors. To be fair, there may have been only one Alumni of the school who attended on Saturday and was offended by Griffin’s comments, but I doubt it.

At Taylor’s Point, there is at least one campus building named for Harrington. There are apparently people who think enough of him to bestow this honor on his name. There’s no word as to whether Griffin’s impressive accomplishments will someday warrant a similar gesture by those in charge of such things at MMA, but the many women graduates of MMA deserved a more appropriate tribute on Saturday. And Christine Griffin, of all people, should know better.

In his opening remarks at the graduation ceremony, Richard Gurnon characterized the Massachusetts Maritime Academy as the finest school of its kind anywhere. He may be right on the mark and arguably, he’s had as much to do with that reality as anyone else. But the issue of whether the oldest continually operating maritime academy in the country can accomplish its primary mission has rarely been in question over the years. Often, however - and Saturday was a prime example - delivering the right public relations message to others has proved elusive. The cadets, faculty and alumni of the Academy should expect and frankly deserve better. It’s not too much to ask.

Joseph Keefe is a 1980 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. You can contact the Managing Editor of MarEx at: [email protected]