Sailors from the Merchant Marine Academy salute during the National Anthem before a baseball game at Citi Field on August 23, 2017, in New York City.

Sailors from the Merchant Marine Academy salute during the National Anthem before a baseball game at Citi Field on August 23, 2017, in New York City. Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

Merchant Marine Academy Woes Imperil National Security, Report Finds

The Academy didn’t seem to “really be aware of the changes that were going on in the shipping industry,” one investigator said.

All is far from shipshape at the U.S. academy charged with supplying young officers to America’s merchant fleet.

Amid a global shipping crisis, a congressionally-mandated investigation into the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy yielded 67 recommendations for improvements to everything from the academy’s facilities to its curriculum. 

“While USMMA is producing licensed merchant mariners, it is not meeting many other requirements and expectations for a federal agency and federal service academy, and it is not adequately planning and prepared for the future,” said Judith Youngman, chair of the investigative panel from the National Academy of Public Administration, a body chartered by Congress in 1967 to help build better government organizations. 

The Kings Point, N.Y., school  faces some of the same problems plaguing the other service academies: sexual assault and harassment and “institutional culture” issues. Just last month, a female midshipman reported being sexually harassed during a training program on a commercial ship. The program was subsequently paused—despite being a key aspect of the curriculum that prepares midshipmen for the realities of the shipping industry. 

“We recognize that this comes at a time when you have already been tested through nearly two years of profound disruptions and adjustments resulting from the COVID pandemic,” Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to USMMA midshipmen announcing the pause. “While we know that this decision will be disappointing to many, we also expect that as leaders who have chosen the path of service, you will support it and each other.” 

The release of the investigators’ report makes clear that the school’s problems don’t stop at sexual assault. 

“The panel’s findings and recommendations address longstanding issues that put the safety and health of the midshipmen and the entire USMMA community in peril,” NAPA President Terry Gerton said in an emailed statement. 

Gerton said the panel’s recommendations “chart a path forward for USMMA by improving both the current and future processes. The charge to address these changes is significant and will require meaningful leadership attention, strategic prioritization, and substantial resource commitments. However, the risks posed by inaction are immense.” 

Those risks go beyond the safety of the academy’s students, whom the panel found were being insufficiently trained for their roles as leaders aboard merchant ships, at port authorities, and throughout the maritime industry.

“One of the key points is that the global maritime environment, for shipping and also for national security and national economic security, is very, very quickly evolving,” Youngman said. “One of the things that the study team learned in its many interviews was that the shipping industry and Port Authority believe that the academy was not...really aware of the changes that were going on.”

The panel recommended a task force be formed to address the full range of issues at the USMMA. Since the academy falls under the Department of Transportation, it would be up to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig to appoint such a panel.

The panel offered no estimates of the cost of getting the school back on track. But Youngman said that the overhaul will need to be a two-pronged effort: first, to bring USMMA up to current standards, then to begin to think about serving industry’s future needs.

“There’s both remediation to be done, a kind of catching up...but it also needs to say, ‘Okay, what are we going to need 20 years from now? Where are we going?’” Youngman said.

“We want to make clear that the riskiest path here is inaction. If the academy does not act, it is on an unsustainable path,” Gerton said. “This panel report offers specific and systemic recommendations that if acted upon, can help to chart a course for the merchant marine academy's future, one that will better position it to educate and graduate new generations of merchant mariners well into the future, and fulfill its important mission.”