Rear Admiral Jack Buono, Deputy Superintendent,awardingGold and Silver Stars to midshipmen who earned distinction for their academic performance. Photo via USMMA

Interview With Rear Admiral Jack Buono, Superintendent of the USMMA at Kings Point

John Konrad
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December 3, 2020

by John Konrad (gCaptain) Last week gCaptain had the privilege of interviewing Rear Admiral Jack Buono, USMS. Two years ago Buono was appointed as the thirteenth Superintendent of the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). Prior to that appointment, RADM Buono served as President and CEO of SeaRiver Maritime, Inc., an ExxonMobil marine subsidiary headquartered in Houston, Texas.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York is one of the five federal service academies and the only one dedicated to both national security and commercial industry.

Buono’s appointment came after a storm of controversy engulfed the academy starting with the closure of the highly important Global Maritime and Transportation School and concluding with several waves of harassment issues that crippled the critical Sea Year program.

RADM Buono did not shy away from answering any of our questions, even those directly related to ongoing challenges like diversity and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Q. What lessons learned from sea cadet year have served you best throughout your career?

A.When I think back on my sea year experience as a cadet, I can tell you that it was an amazing period of growth for me. Having been raised in Brooklyn and Westbury, New York, I remember growing up believing that New York was the center of the universe.Sea year opened my eyes to so many things. Not only were my eyes opened wide the first time I saw a 60’ sea cover the entire main deck of a tanker in the Gulf of Alaska, wondering if it was time to head for the lifeboats, but sea year, in addition to revealing the wonders of going to sea, introduced me to an incredibly diverse and culturally rich world I never knew existed.

Climbing aboard my first ship as a cadet, the C3 MORMACLAKE, sailing out of the 23rdStreet Terminal in Brooklyn, I remember how excited and nervous I was. Waking up to flying fish skipping across cobalt blue Gulf Stream on our way to Brazil was a sight that sticks with me until today. Going ashore in my first foreign port of San Salvador, Brazil, was like being Gulliver in Gulliver’s travels. That was the first exposure to a different culture and was to be the first of many opportunities to appreciate how incredibly colorful and culturally rich our world is.

For me, sea year was a critical period in my life that enabled me to expand my horizons as an individual and as a mariner. It was a key opportunity to see leadership in both good and bad forms. It provided me the opportunity to decide what my attributes as a merchant officer were going to be. Yes, it was wonderful to shoot a round of stars and put a pinwheel fix on the chart, but the greatest growth came as a result of seeing leadership, teamwork and seamanship in action.

Sea Year provided me the chance to grow very quickly as a future officer.

Q. There were many colleges in our nation that faced strong pressure in recent months but you were among the quickest and strongest in early support of black and minority students. How do we assure that support continues after the BLM headlines fade?

A. During racial unrest across the country earlier in the year, we, like many colleges and universities, exercised proactive communications across the spectrum of our constituents. In an open letter from the Superintendent, we acknowledged the issue and denounced all forms of hate.

In an example of Acta Non-Verba – our motto (Deeds Not Words) – we specifically engaged with our minority alumni groups, parents of minority students, and incoming minority students themselves. We empowered our cultural Diversity Club, our alumni groups, and our athletic department, and we challenged them to come together with solutions.

The subsequent discussions have resulted in initiatives like the midshipmen run Cultural Competence Training sessions. We created a panel to review the names of everything on campus to assess the signals we were sending to our students about what lives were noteworthy. As a result of these efforts, we have garnered a lot of support from our parent’s association, Alumni Association and Foundation, faculty, students, and coaches.

We need to continue this work, we are just starting, but we have momentum and we intend to in the future.

Q. USMMA was the first service academy to accept women and you have strengthened ties with organizations like WISTA and Women Offshore. Why is gender diversity important for our industry?

A. Because diversity is our industry. Women are a tremendous part of our merchant marine. They are licensed deck and engine officers. Their gender doesn’t matter. They are tested, qualified, certified, and competent to do the job. We have to get beyond gender, beyond gender preference, beyond race, and beyond all the artificial barriers that prevent people from doing their jobs. The sooner we get beyond those things, the better we will be as an industry. We need to get there, and we need to get there quickly.

Q. Part of your success is your close working relationship with national leaders like Mark Buzby and Secretary Chao. Can you discuss this relationship?

A. Our relationship is built on respect. I can’t imagine the responsibilities and the pull Secretary Chao has as a member of the President’s cabinet. Similarly, the Maritime Administrator has a huge job, incredible pull there as well. Both are dedicated to doing the absolute best job they can for our country and in our case for the Academy. I respect that. In return, as a college president here at USMMA, I think they respect the job and the responsibilities that go into running a federal service academy.

I appreciate the support. When I have needed it, I have never been disappointed in the support I have received from either the Maritime Administrator or the Secretary of Transportation and I feel blessed to be in a situation where I have that support. It is essential to the success of the Academy. I also admire the dedication and devotion to duty of both the Secretary and the Maritime Administrator, and I feel proud to have the opportunity to work with them.

Q. As a graduate of SUNY Maritime, I am often envious of the strength and effectiveness of your Alumni Association. And from the results of the All Academy Challenge I believe alumni of other service academies are too. Why is your AA so effective?

A. Kings Pointers have a unique bond that stems from the pride they take in the challenge of the four-year leader development program that includes a year at sea learning the trade, but also post-graduate in the jobs we are challenged to do on the seas around the globe. Additionally, we enjoy a close bond because there are not that many of us – about 15,000. The USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation(AAF) is an extremely well-run organization with excellent leadership and a superb Board of Directors. I respect them and I have a good relationship with them. They are extremely important to our mission and our midshipmen. As an example, about 50 percent of our athletic budget comes from AAF donations. We wouldn’t be able to do half the things we do here without the partnership and generosity of the AAF. They are dedicated to and understand our mission of graduating leaders of exemplary character, and they do everything they can to assist in our ability to accomplish that mission. Whether it be infrastructure improvements, midshipmen club sponsorships, athletics, or more recently extensive efforts to maintain midshipman morale during the COVID crisis through donations and gifts (including paddleboards, kayaks, evening concerts, multiple Class dinner sponsorships, and club contest prizes). Just as the AAF understands the challenges of our mission, so do the individual graduates of the Academy. They come together to assist and provide support for our midshipmen in many ways, and we also couldn’t do what we do without the stalwart support of our alumni.

Before we get off this topic of support, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the support and assistance we get from our National Parents Association. We have a similar relationship with this association made of current and former parents of midshipmen and we appreciate all the things they do to improve the quality of life of our midshipmen.

Q. Can you discuss the importance of “Act Non Verba” to the success of your alumni?

A. I believe USMMA produces the finest product of all the federal service academies, on the smallest budget per capita. The reason is, we focus on the challenges our midshipmen endure throughout their four-year experience, not the least of which being Sea Year.

As a recent example, one of our Regimental Commanders attended a leadership conference at another federal service academy. When he returned and debriefed me, he told me, that while the other academies prepare men and women to serve and do so very well, he believed USMMA graduates the best product. He went on to say that the men and women he had met at the conference were without a doubt the best and brightest the nation had to offer, but he felt that he was more prepared to take on the challenges of leadership at this point in his training than his academy peers. The reason, he said, was Sea Year. He said we have been tested as young leaders already, we have had to perform and problem-solve as leaders at sea. My peers are still learning about practical leadership.

This is the essential building block of Acta Non Verba. The ethos of Deeds Not Words. The Sea Year experience requires them to develop their own leadership style and to experience others along the way. There are no instructors at sea, they are on their own to develop their leadership foundation, and we believe Acta Non Verba guides them.

This has been no more evident than during the pandemic and the nearly real-time shift to distance learning and the robust planning required to return the Regiment of Midshipmen to Kings Point to continue with our mission. This was an all-hands effort that included midshipmen, faculty and staff to return the regiment and start the 2020-21 academic year before most colleges in the country were able to do so.

Q. What are the challenges you face that keep you up at night?

A. We are navigating a difficult channel during the pandemic. Our greatest challenge is navigating the center of that channel. On one shore we have health administrators advising us on the components of the physical health of our community and the requirements to ensure that. On the other side, we have the emotional and spiritual health practitioners advising and guiding us as we navigate the channel. The number one priority and the big question I ask myself each night is: are we doing everything possible to balance those important factors and keep our midshipmen safe. I believe all the federal service academies are facing this same challenge, and that we are all striving to navigate the center of the channel and achieve appropriate balance with each component.

Q. Today America’s technology sector accounts for over 25% of the S&P 500 and institutions like Stamford and MIT are at the heart of this technology revolution but the maritime industry is far behind the innovation curve. I have no doubt that your school has in your ranks midshipmen capable of being the next Bezos or Musk but there is little support for maritime startups today. With federal budgets tight and highly regulated, how can the USMMA and our wider industry better support innovation?

A. I believe the catalyst for innovation must come from industry, from our maritime companies. Our part of that is to prepare students to be well equipped to enter into an industry that has embraced cutting edge technology and innovation.

We are challenging student minds at USMMA to be adaptive learners. We can’t teach every permutation of life at sea, but we can (and do) teach midshipmen to have adaptive minds, to face challenges head-on, to learn quickly, and to make good decisions. Just like we can’t train mariners for every weather challenge they might face while at sea, we can (and do) train students on what to look for and what considerations we need to be aware of when managing ship operations in unforgiving environments thrown at us by Mother Nature.

We need to graduate adaptive learners that have the leadership qualities to operate safely in isolated environments. If we do that, they will have the tools required to succeed in any job ahead of them.

Additionally, having a Maritime Center of Excellence is an important part of our ability to stay connected to industry and to understand how they are embracing technology. In doing so, we will be able to make informed decisions about what we teach to our midshipmen.

Q. The NTSB recently released their report on the USS Fitzgerald. In the days after that tragedy, there was a call from Congress and the Secretary of the Navy to work with our industry and the USMMA to help the U.S. Navy reduce incidents at sea, but U.S. Naval interest was lukewarm. There is also a lot about innovation and leadership that shipping can learn from the U.S. Navy. It seems obvious to me that the first step should be U.S. Navy investment in USMMA. Have they reached out to you at all?

A. I recently had the occasion to spend a week embarked on a U.S. Navy Guided Missile Cruiser and an Aircraft Carrier in the Middle East. As a 40-year commercial mariner, and now the Superintendent at USMMA, the benefits of this trip were immeasurable. I was able to observe the men and women of the Navy in their operational environment and I can tell you, they are second to none when it comes to operating in hostile waters. I was also able to compare my experience at sea with the military version, which led me to the conclusion that as mariners, we all serve in fundamentally the same manner – commercial and military. Duties aboard the vessels were similar across the board. As you know, watchkeeping is important, but it was not too long aboard with the Navy that I realized that standing watch is standing watch, no matter what kind of ship you are aboard, and I saw Navy men and women standing the watch aboard those ships in a highly professional manner.

The Navy recently reached out to us to help with the firefighting investigation of the USS Bonhomme Richard – we hope to strengthen such bonds of trust.

One thing I have learned in my long association with the sea – and it is something I tell midshipmen here frequently – is that you perform at your best when you are in a state of mild discomfort. It helps you to guard against complacency, which can be a major contributor to at-sea failures.

Q. There have been recent calls for re-establishing the U.S. Merchant Service (USMS). Would this be of benefit to our nation?

A. The U.S. Maritime Service was decommissioned in the years after World War II. It now primarily exists in support of the state and federal maritime educational component under the auspices of the Secretary of Transportation. I feel very strongly about the importance of the USMS. After a 40-year career as a mariner, serving as a ship’s master, the CEO of a maritime corporation, and now as the Superintendent at USMMA, I don’t think you can understate the importance of the USMS to the economic and national security of the U.S. Sadly, I don’t think the average American understands, or is informed of the role our Merchant Marine and the U.S. Maritime Service play in the well-being of our economy.

Q. Countless Admirals have moved from the Pentagon to the board room but you are among a small group of people who sailed the other way round. What unique lessons have you learned from that experience?

A. Leadership and the application of leadership, whether onboard or in the boardroom, are very, very similar. The lessons we learn and the lessons we teach at the Academy give our graduates a good start for future leadership challenges. My leadership experiences, either at sea or on land, have translated very well in both areas.

Q. In the past few years, massive amounts of funding are being earmarked for wind farm, short sea shipping and other green initiatives in your backyard. How is the USMMA participating?

A. We are well-connected to the innovations that are ongoing inside and outside the industry. Our officers are trained to work within those innovative projects, whether it’s aboard supply vessels providing support to projects, whether it’s inside the projects, or whether it is just aboard the ships themselves. Our graduates are well-equipped to make contributions to virtually any kind of offshore project. Additionally, leadership training at USMMA and the practical application of decision making in difficult or challenging environments contributes to the quality officer that find themselves at sea, supporting offshore innovation.

Q. There is a small but vocal minority of people in our industry calling for the closure of Kings Point. In articles and podcasts, I have taken a strong opposing view and have called for a full doubling of federal funding for your school. If you had a significantly larger budget how would that benefit the nation and our industry?

A. USMMA has been able to deliver on its mission to the Nation for the last 77 years. We provide leaders of exemplary character that are committed to serving the national security, marine transportation, and economic needs of the United States. We are not limited by our budget in delivering on this mission. I am not aware of anyone that is calling for the closure of Kings Point, but should there be such a minority, I would be happy to connect with them and enlighten their thinking.

Q. The state maritime academies have been given large amounts of money for the much-needed replacement of our training ships. I believe an equal investment of $300 million should be given to KP to invest in building a center for maritime technology, innovation, and cybersecurity. What are your thoughts?

A. I support and have been very pleased to see the investment in training ships for our State Maritime Academies and our country’s security needs. We recently completed a yearlong effort at USMMA to formulate and approve, what we call the USMMA Long-Range Planning Strategy. It is a multi-year plan for infrastructure upgrade and replacement which will ensure we continue to deliver on our mission in the years to come. Cyber Security, and a Maritime Center of Excellence are both worthwhile considerations that are included in the planning strategy.

Q. There has been a lot of buzz on social media about sexual harassment and it’s difficult for the public to separate fact from fiction. How do we provide transparency while protecting the privacy of victims?

A. The safety of our midshipmen is of the utmost importance at USMMA. We have a fully staffed Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, along with programs of education on things like incident response, victim advocacy, and bystander intervention. In addition, we have at-sea programs that include advanced notification capabilities and SCCT training for supporting members of industry. We have progressed many initiatives and programs, but none more important than education.

As for Social Media. SM provides anonymity without accountability. We have to educate our midshipmen about the pitfalls and dangers of SM. We have experienced instances of cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, and even inaccurate and misguided information on SM. Moving forward, we need to take the time, make the effort, and invest the resources in continuing midshipmen education about the risks of SM, whether ashore or at sea.

We have high hopes for eradicating sexual assault and sexual harassment at the Academy and we are heartened in the fact that more midshipmen are showing interest in being victim advocates at the Academy in the recent past. We believe that if every midshipman were a victim advocate and a qualified bystander, then we would be able to eradicate sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Q. The USMMA has invested a lot of time and energy on the issue of sexual and minority harassment. How do we assure that those lessons reach the broader industry?

A. Industry has been very cooperative in working on many of these issues. We should recognize that industry has come a long way in creating programs that result in harassment-free workplaces (SCCT). But we aren’t there yet. We need to continue to produce leaders with awareness and sensitivity to these issues and, over time, the culture will change. We need to do everything we can to promote and expedite that change, and we are putting in a lot of time and effort to do so.

Q. Is there any hope for the future of the U.S. Merchant Marine?

A. Absolutely! Our economic and national security depend on it!

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