Rear Admiral James A. Helis, USMMA Superintendant

Rear Admiral James A. Helis, USMMA Superintendant

In the heat and sunshine of a clear summer day, hundreds of cadets stood at attention to welcome the new superintendent, Rear Admiral James A. Helis, to the campus of the United States Merchant Marine Academy.

All but the freshman class of cadets were familiar with the uniforms, flags and ceremony that surrounded the event, but only a handful had met Helis.  Many stood skeptical of the retired army colonel who had just that morning, donned the stark white uniform adorned with two silver-stitched stars of a Rear Admiral, two notches above the highest rank Helis achieved in the Army.

The appointment of Helis is the latest in a series of controversial orders sent from Washington by US Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, the school’s federal supervisor. Previous controversies include loss of the school’s training ship, the closing of respected industry training and outreach programs, and the loss of a succession of superintendents leaving industry insiders to question the fate of the country’s only federal maritime academy.

Today marks the second week of Rear Admiral Helis’ tenure and two significant announcements:

The first announcement is the school’s shift of focus from blue water to brown water operations, a move that will begin with the purchase of a new training “ship”.  According to King’s Point’s local newspaper, the new vessel will provide midshipman training in brown-water operations. “Inland waterways are increasingly being used for commerce within the U.S.,” said Helis, who mentioned the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River as hubs of marine transport.

This move appears to stand in stark contrast to reality as the industry is busy developing new standards,  new training, and new equipment for Gulf of Mexico and near-coastal vessels that are increasing in size. The school’s move toward brown water also seems to neglect many of the biggest challenges the modern industry is facing including mega ship disasters, mega rig disasters and widening infrastructure.

The second announcement is the dismissal of tenured humanities professor Gregory F. Sullivan for making an inappropriate joke to students,  According to students at the school Sullivan said: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.” The joke was made in reference to James Holmes, who dyed his hair orange, before allegedly barging into a theater and fatally shooting 12 people. This particular joke would likely have been met with the rolling of eyes if it were not for the grim fact that the father of a student in attendance was killed in the Colorado attack.

According to the New York Times Sullivan quickly realized his mistake after the grieving student left the room visibly upset and immediately offered his personal apology. Sullivan then offered his apology to the academic dean, Shashi Kumar but this fell on deaf ears. Kumar immediately suspended the professor and recommended his dismissal.

In response to the incident Helis is reported to have said: “The academy’s first priority is the well-being of its students. As soon as I learned of the incident, I immediately placed the professor involved on administrative leave, and he is not teaching class at this time.”

“As with any investigation,” he added, “we are interviewing both students and faculty, and the professor will have the opportunity to respond before we issue our final determination.”

The comment by Sullivan and subsequent media attention is embarrassing to a school already circled in controversy and dependent of congressional support for funding however, some school alumni feel Helis may have overreacted.  Fueling the drama is the fact that Sullivan has certain rights as a professor with tenure, rights which protect him against cursory dismissal.

Was Sullivan’s comment accidental?

School officials says this is unlikely considering the school circulated a campus-wide memo  notifying faculty of the tragedy and Sullivan had given students permission to attend the father’s funeral, but experts may question this premise.

In writing my book, Fire On The Horizon, I interviewed survivors of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and found that most were suffering from high levels of grief and remorse over the death of their fellow crew-members. A few continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder today, but their grief is often punctuated with the occasional joke or off colored remark. I have witnessed the same mixture of humor, including the occasional inappropriate remark, at other times of both family and professional misfortune.

In his book “Grief Relief: Looking for Laughter in Loss,” Allen Klein, an expert in Applied and Therapeutic Humor, writes that laughter can be as important as tears in the grieving process, and even the best trained counselors make inappropriate comments.  Klein tells us:

In the Jewish religion, it is customary for the immediate family to sit Shivah for seven days after the funeral. Friends, relatives and neighbors stop by to pay their condolences during this time. While informing the rabbi that my brother would be completing his Shivah in Connecticut, where he lives, my mom had a slip of the tongue. Instead of saying “Sitting Shivah”, she blurted out, “Shitting Sivah… For the next few days, as I was going through this roller coaster ride of tears and laughter.

In short, humor is the method many humans use to deal with grief. As one Harvard study points out; our minds dwell on the incidents that affect those around us. We think about them incessantly and it’s difficult to switch our brain off the vivid images of death and back into “work mode”. Slip ups are common and, for someone who’s brain uses humor to deal with stress, the results can appear to come with malicious intent.
It remains unclear if Sulivan’s remarks where  accidental or malicious and if Rear Admiral Helis will follow through on his threat of dismissal, but gCaptain will report the facts as they arrive.
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