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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  • Ormond Otvos

    Hard to believe the professor would hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose. Easier to believe his apologies were sincere. No problem believing the admins are the orange hairs here.

  • Anonymous

    I am a midshipman at the Academy and I would like to voice my view of the situation at hand the media coverage surrounding it. We were in S227. Those who have been in this auditorium classroom would agree it resembles a movie theater. The professor turned down the lights to begin the video, and one midshipman remarked “it’s like a movie theater,” to which the professor responded rather quietly, “If anyone sees a man with orange hair, run for the exit.” No one in the classroom caught his remark until the midshipman involved in the incident quietly got up, said something to the professor, and walked out of the classroom. The professor followed. At this point in time, the rest of us left in the classroom realized what had just happened. After about a minute, the professor returned to the classroom and turned off the video. He proceeded to apologize and completely fall on his sword. He told us that what he had done was incredibly dishonorable and that it was without excuse, particularly at a military academy where honor was held with such a high esteem. He told us, “Give me your worst, I deserve it.” No one in the class had a single stone to throw. The professor was so upset about what he had done, he was literally shaking as he apologized to the rest of the class. It was clear that he was not aware that anyone at the academy, let alone in the class had any connection to the horrendous shooting. We all understood that the joke was distasteful, however, it was not intended to be malicious. The professor dismissed the class and went directly to his department head to explain the incident that had occurred. As our section left the building, we all agreed not to tell anyone about the event. We did not want this to explode through the KP rumor mill or the press because we wanted to save our professor’s name and we did not want our friend to have to deal with more than was already on his plate. No one spoke. The next word we heard about it came more than a week later through an email from the Academic Dean requesting to speak with the section leader.
    All eye-witnesses of the episode immediately accepted the professor’s unquestionably sincere apology and took measures to protect our friend from further infliction and our professor from public reprimand. The Academic Dean is now quoted saying the joke was ‘notoriously disgraceful conduct.’ My question for the administration is that knowing this subject was one of a particularly high sensitivity, why then did they not make a more forward effort to inform teachers of the circumstances. Could that joke not have been avoided if more preemptive measures had been taken? This situation was caused by a poor risk evaluation by the administration of the Academy. Just as we are taught in our management and logistics classes, even though there was a low probability that the topic would come up in a classroom setting, the consequences of the incident were high. Not only was there the possibility of additional emotional hurt to a midshipman already in a very difficult time, but there was a threat to the reputation of the Academy as an institution of honor and integrity. Due to the high impact of an event, regardless of the low probability, the administration should have done more than just send out an email. Anyone who is connected to the Academy’s email system knows that there is an incredible about of emails blasted out every day that have little to no pertinence to the party receiving them. Therefore, there is a good possibility that the professor overlooked the email allegedly sent on July 25th as it was the day before school started and everyone was getting large amounts of emails that did not pertaining to most the people they were sent to. As a professional, the professor should have been more prudent when sifting through his email, however, this does not excuse the administration of not making a more direct effort to inform the instructors of the shooting’s proximity to the Academy.
    Lastly, the Academy preaches the Office of External Affairs’ press policy to all midshipmen and faculty to “help build and protect the image of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, “and to “ensure the privacy of our midshipmen and the security of our campus.” Why then, and for what purpose, has the administration been talking to the press about this subject? The actions of the professor certainly do not reflect the image we want broadcasted by the media, and the now national coverage of the event in that classroom surely does not protect the privacy of my fellow midshipman who was involved. Additionally, I can only imagine how much this media coverage adds to my section mate’s burden and heartache. There is no advantage to further discuss this subject, therefore I ask that all who truly care about the Academy, the midshipman, and his family to stop buying in to the sensationalist tendencies that a story of this nature can cultivate and to focus on the betterment of the Academy through improvement of the administrative and political structure surrounding this institution. Thank you.

    • John Konrad

      Thank you for the clarifications. Hopefully clear heads will prevail.

  • Frederick P. West, Jr.

    What were they thinking? An Army officer in charge of a Maritime Academy? There are a ton of qualified Navy/Merchant Marine officers around with worlds of experience who would get more respect from the cadets, alumni, and the business world…

  • Chris

    Hey GCaptain, can you do a follow up on these “Brown Water Maritime Academy” remarks? I’m interested in what they mean by a transition.

  • John Konrad

    We are also interested in this story but, unfortunately, the school has gone into media blackout mode in response to an upcoming article that will soon be published by the New York Times.

    My guess? The entire brown water issue is just an excuse to buy a small, inexpensive, ship…. but this is just a guess.

  • kevin

    I find it disturbing that an academy that prides itself on “honor” fails to see the actions of this professor as dishonorable. Anyone can make a mistake, but it takes an “honorable” man to take immediate action. Based on the midshipman’s account, the professor in question realized his mistake and took immediate action. He did not make excuses and explained that his slip-up was a mistake. In my personal opinion, he was very much aware of the environment in which he taught because his actions after the comment were, to me, excessively sensitive. If people cannot understand that tragedy happens, and that humans often use dark humor as a way to process grief, they have no business in positions of leadership. I do NOT want to follow someone so careful about their actions that ever word coming out of their mouth is politically correct. Life, especially life at sea, is full of tense and dangerous moments. We do not need to add the extra burden of “zero tolerance” to our comments. Putting someone who’s sea experience is almost non-existant in charge of a maritime academy is an insult to all the fine graduates who have made a career out of going to sea. Imagine what the Army would say if someone put a merchant captain or chief engineer in charge of West Point! Both the response to this professors innocent comment (however much in bad taste) and the notion of entrenchment from the world maritime stage show that “this” leader should never have been put in charge of anything outside the Army.

  • Barry P.

    Political correctness and psychology of grief aside, my comment is in agreement with the writer’s comments re the strength in the offshore markets. At the risk of offending my brown-water friends (did someone say ARMY Corps of Engineers?), the offshore markets- which I guess includes “near coastal” vessels, are where it’s at. That means money, vitality, and U.S. energy security. The jobs are high-paying, and the offshore segment of the maritime biz, where the U.S. Gulf forms one point of the “Golden Triangle” is on an upward growth trend. I would think that the policy makers at US DOT, US MARAD and USMMA might want to look forward in this regard.

  • Jayne

    How many ships in the RRF? Let MARAD give the school the Cape Ducato, she just had a yard period. Nice motor ship for the cadets. I don’t get the decision making process. MARAD is run by bean counters who eat half the beans.

  • Midshipman

    …A ship which we can utilize to a much greater extent than a larger ship. We don’t need a full-scale training vessel, we have the majority of the U.S. merchant fleet for that, on which we spend approximately 300 days over the course of our time here. A smaller ship, requiring a smaller professional crew and having the flexibility to get underway, for a shorter period of time, on a more frequent basis, is exactly what we need. Additionally, a vessel which will allow us to supplement our towing, shiphandling, and possibly a future dynamic positioning curriculum would strike me as an extremely beneficial platform. I only wish this was happening three years ago.

  • Edward

    Greetings. I am a KP Grad of some 15 years ago. I am currently engaged in the maritime field, and my experience is showing me that this Brown Water idea is the worst that can happen to the academy. Deep See Sailing is what’s growing, even with the economic slow-down that’s happening in Europe. What I can tell the people who overlook the academic of the academy is to reinforce the practical side of the field, because the classroom is not enough.

  • Robert Glas

    Brown water is a seat of the pants scenario; No more 2 mile CPAs and call the captain!
    This should be real interesting, I wonder what Salty O’Hara would say about this?

    • Richard Kern

      Humanities courses are required to get a Bachelor’s Degree.

  • Former Blue Water Captain

    I find it real interesting KP gets an Army Colonel. CMA gets an Navy Admiral. No wonder the American Merchant Marine is going into the head. Does anyone in America know how to move cargo over blue water?

  • kuldeep singh

    i am enjoying marine

  • weski

    There are fewer than 200 US Flagged deep water ships operating these days. At least 1/3 are dependent on the now eliminated cargo preference rules. Do we need an additional 200 KP grads a year? Or has the US Merchant Marine evolved to only local/Gulf waters? The future of US blue water shipping looks dim unless major Jones Act, tax laws & EPA type rules change. Meanwhile, I hope the PC hue & cry doesn’t cost the prof his job.

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