Tempest in a Teapot: Mass. Maritime Moves to Change Name of Training Ship

Published Jan 7, 2011 2:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

New name, intended to honor Senator Ted Kennedy and his family, has many MMA alumni angered and still others wondering why in the world the academy would wade out into what is sure to be dangerous political waters.

The phrase "Tempest in a Teapot" is commonly used to reflect that situation or event which has been exaggerated out of proportion. Arguably, this idiom perfectly reflects a rapidly developing situation on the campus of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, MA. There, Congressman Delahunt (D MA) has proposed in a letter that the name of the school's training ship be changed from "ENTERPRISE" to one which would somehow reflect the name "KENNEDY." To say that the idea has rankled many in the MMA community would be a serious understatement.

As an alumni of Mass. Maritime, I subscribe to an informal alumni chat/e-mail exchange forum, where alumni (and sometimes others) air their views, look for jobs and more often than not, express their unvarnished opinions. Mostly, I'm a lurker. In the choppy wake of the disclosure that the Kennedy name would somehow be affixed to the bow of the academy's training ship, however, I have seen perhaps as many as 150 messages fly by, all but one of them against the move. In the face of this, I have also read news accounts that MMA president RADM Richard Gurnon insists, "Response has been overwhelmingly positive."

The E-mails; colorful, angry and thought-provoking, all point out good reasons to leave well enough alone. The possibility of Delahunt competing for Kennedy's seat when and if it becomes available was put forth as one very real motivator for the name change, and another writer wondered whether future funding for the ship would hinge on the deal. Still others questioned whether the cost of changing the ship's name would be a prudent way to be spending the estimated $10-20 thousand that it would cost to get it done. "Buy fuel instead," echoed another. And, who will pay for the name change should it become a reality? It certainly is not in the budget of either the Commonwealth or MARAD.

Today, RADM Gurnon's office did respond to repeated MarEx calls and e-mails for official comment. It is clear that he supports the effort by Delahunt. On record as intending to bring the matter before the MMA Board of Trustees, he also has been quoted as saying, "I believe that this is the best move for the Academy." That remains to be seen, especially given the stiff and sometimes vociferous opposition now being mounted by some members of the school's loyal, but outspoken alumni. And while I won't tell where I stand on the matter, I will say that I certainly don't envy President Gurnon's options at this point in time.

Arguably, Gurnon has valid reasons for supporting the name change. He maintains that without Congressman Delahunt and Senator Kennedy there would be no Enterprise. But the real impetus behind finding the first $25 million to convert the Cape Bon into the Training Ship Enterprise and then finding the extra $7 million needed to finish the ship and deliver it to Buzzards Bay will always be in dispute. The additional $12 million needed to bring the ship to a condition where it can carry at least 600 cadets may actually be the real motivation. Gurnon and the Academy have, in recent months, been scouring Capitol Hill offices to scrape up enough money for a desperately needed refit. There's no word on whether he has realized any joy there. This week's announcement just might be your first clue.

In the meantime, and from the point of view of a large swath of the school's graduates, the move is a virtual slap in the face to those who make their living on the waterfront, at sea and in the boardrooms of maritime businesses around the globe. Long an opponent of offshore drilling, ANWR exploration and virtually every other industrial endeavor that makes the maritime commercial world tick, Kennedy has few friends among the largely conservative group that forms a good sized chunk of the alumni of the oldest continuously operating maritime academy in the country. To be sure, his well-known benevolence when it comes to dealing with the cadets has never extended to a pragmatic approach to their wellbeing once they step off campus into the workplace.

The matter is scheduled to come to a head in September, but sources close to the fray that the matter is all but a done deal. But, not before protocol is followed. Although there is no formal procedure for this kind of thing (yeah, I checked), no name change can take place without the approval of Maritime Administrator Connaughton (MARAD loans the ship to the academy) or that of Congress. Beyond this, a letter requesting the change of name must be received from the governor of Massachusetts and the Mass. Maritime Board of Trustees also has to approve the move. Preceding all of that will be a public meeting on August 26, for the purpose of allowing discussion on the issue. Still, the sentimental aspect of the proposal will likely move the ball along to Washington where, presumably, it will receive a bit more scrutiny.

In the end, this really is a tempest in a teapot. The name of the vessel will have no relationship to the quality of the training that takes place on board, but on the other hand, the long term damage to the relationship between the school and (some of) its alumni may be irreparable. Those who have long served the school through donations and service could find other places to divert their time, talent and treasure. And, there's no guarantee that changing the name of the training ship will scare up anything more than a feel-good aura for the Kennedy family at a time when the Senator's legacy is still being defined.

There are a lot of good ways to honor the Kennedy family's public service legacy. The renaming of Mass. Maritime's training ship may or may not be the best way to do that. Sadly, however, this is one of those proverbial Pandora's Boxes that, once opened, is impossible to seal back up. Very soon, MMA's alumni will find out just how much the school (its administrators and the board of trustees) values their opinion. The very people upon which the Academy has built its fine reputation probably ought to have some say in what happens next. Increasingly, it does appear that this won't be the case. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE and a 1980 (Deck) graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. He can be reached with comments on this or any other article in this e-newsletter at [email protected].

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