Federal Review: "USMMA Has Lost its Way"

USMMA file image

Published Nov 24, 2021 7:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Congressionally-mandated review has delivered a devastating assessment of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's governance structure, warning that the school has "lost its way" and needs to address "longstanding issues that put the safety and health of the Midshipmen and the entire USMMA community in peril."

In 2019, Congress directed the Secretary of Transportation to hire the National Academy of Public Administration - NAPA, a prominent governance consultancy - to conduct an independent study of longstanding issues at the school. 

The panel - chaired by a professor with three decades of experience at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy - found systemic governance shortcomings with wide-ranging effects. In short, the panel concluded that "the most significant risk that USMMA faces today is doing nothing to remediate [its] breakdowns in governance."

Previous studies conducted over the past 10 years have catalogued Kings Point's challenges in education, facilities and infrastructure, diversity and inclusion, and sexual assault and harassment. Though these problems have been identified previously, many remain unsolved, NAPA found. "USMMA and [the U.S. Maritime Administration] have known about many of these issues for a period of years yet have made little, no, or slow progress towards addressing them. In some cases, USMMA appeared to take the recommended courses of action, but the issues remained or resurfaced because the root causes—often related to governance, resources, and organizational culture—were not fully addressed," the panel wrote. 

The causes for the lack of effective action boil down to a lack of staff capacity and resourcing; a lack of long-term strategic vision; lack of effective oversight by the Department of Transportation and MARAD; and a risk-averse, "compliance-focused" management culture, the panel found. 

“While USMMA is producing licensed merchant mariners, it is not meeting many other requirements and expectations for a federal agency and federal service academy,” said NAPA Fellow and Panel Chair Judith Youngman, a distinguished professor emeritus at USCGA and associate professor at West Point. “Only a transformation in governance can right the USMMA ship."

At the level of fine detail, the panel compiled a list of unsolved problems covering seven chapters and 200 pages, and many are familiar from years past. Among others, these issues include a broken federal hiring process that hobbles faculty recruitment; too few facilites personnel; little progress on facility repairs; low and declining minority enrollment; below-average female enrollment; a student culture that discourages reporting of sexual assault; gaps in protection for Sea Year cadets; a shortage of professional capacity in the ranks of USMMA's administrators; inconsistent engagement from Congress; overlapping oversight boards with fragmented responsibilities; a fractious relationship with MARAD; and questionable accounting controls.

Without external guidance, a check-the-box approach to reform could address all of these issues without creating any real change, NAPA warned. 

"USMMA and MARAD could respond to this report as they have responded to previous assessments. They could technically address all the recommendations and still not achieve the changes in governance, management, and culture needed to eliminate the causes of its present state," cautioned the NAPA panel. "'Compliance' is a minimal response."

To address these issues once and for all, the panel recommended setting up a reform task force at the DOT level, staffed by seasoned leaders and executives. This group would be tasked with driving cultural and institutional change at USMMA, and would incorporate professionals with experience in change management, federal requirements, higher education administration, financial management, facility and infrastructure repair, and the specific needs of the maritime industry. 

Unless it were merged with existing boards, the proposed task force would be the academy's fifth oversight body. USMMA is currently advised and supervised by the Board of Visitors, the MARAD Maritime Education and Training Executive Review Board, the USMMA Advisory Board and (once every eight years) the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. 

“USMMA students are remarkable leaders committed to serving the nation and supporting positive change,” said Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley in a statement. “They deserve a modern, safe, and inclusive learning environment where they have the training and resources that will prepare them to succeed in the U.S. merchant marine and in our armed forces. We acknowledge, and have been working to address, the many urgent issues raised by NAPA’s report and to put USMMA on a path to modernization.”