Wiley Hall at the US Merchant Marine Academy

Wiley Hall at the US Merchant Marine Academy. Image via USMMA.EDU

Midshipman X – Candid Interview With A Merchant Marine Academy Leader

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November 5, 2021

We recently had a chat with Jim Tobin, President, and CEO of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation (AAF) about the latest Midshipman X controversy concerning the sexual assault of students interning as cadets during the US Merchant Marine Academy’s Sea Year.

Jim, a 1977 graduate of the USMMA. Earlier in his career, Jim sailed aboard deep-sea commercial ships with the Masters, Mates, & Pilots union and eventually worked with the Department of Environmental Protection for the City of New York. He sailed as Master and worked as Port Superintendent. During his career at sea Jim obtained an Unlimited Masters License Upon Oceans, and First Class Pilotage for the New York Harbor area.

Jim has served as the President of the AAF since December 2008.

What was your reaction when you first heard about the Midshipman X blog post?
Absolute shock. The allegations are horrific, and I am hopeful the investigations are completed promptly. Right now, our thoughts need to be with the victim and on her recovery. 
As an alumni group with no inside knowledge of what happened aboard the Maersk vessel, what role can you and other stakeholders play in supporting the anonymous Midshipman?
I was gratified to see many stakeholders take immediate action. Speaking for the AAF, we wrote to the Academy and Maersk just hours after learning about the incident in late September and called for an immediate investigation. It was our belief that leadership in both government and at Maersk needed to know that the alumni base is deeply concerned about this incident, that a prompt, thorough investigation is critical, and that no woman – cadet or seasoned professional – should have to live in fear at her workplace, especially when it is offshore. It appears that Maersk, the Coast Guard, and the leadership of MARAD and the DOT are doing the right things. I don’t think we would have seen this type of reaction a generation ago, so in that sense, we are seeing progress.
Are you concerned this incident will impact women’s maritime career prospects?
There is a certain element among mariners that would be perfectly content if women are denied the opportunity to work at sea. This notion needs to be resisted by all of us, period. We can’t close the maritime door to half the population. I am so proud that USMMA was the first federal service academy to admit women, and today hundreds of our female graduates serve the nation at all levels of the maritime industry both at sea and ashore. While much has been accomplished in the last 50 years, more still needs to be done.
What can more experienced female mariners do to support this younger generation? 
There is a lot of information they can impart to women just starting their careers. Mentorships, affinity, and advocacy organizations like Women Offshore help cultivate an atmosphere of knowledge and respect. We greatly admire their work and appreciate their role in increasing the AAF’s understanding of the unique challenges female mariners face. I believe that, by working together to advance the common goal of supporting women mariners, each of our organizations can help the other more effectively do its part to improve the culture at sea for all mariners.

Social media can play a big role in this, so we have begun to add the hashtag #womenbelongatsea to our social media posts. It is our hope that even small gestures like this will help the younger generation know that they are not alone. 
Do we need a Sea Year stand down?
First off, we need to remember this is mission-critical training. It is not a luxury. We are preparing cadets for service to the nation in times of war. USMMA Midshipmen have trained at sea on commercial vessels for more than 75 years. Female USMMA cadets have trained on commercial vessels for nearly 50 years. We shouldn’t punish the Midshipmen for the actions of a criminal. We need to prosecute and remove criminals from the workplace. DOT, MARAD, the shipping companies, the unions, and every individual in the community is responsible to follow the policies that were developed to keep people safe and productive.
What do you think about Tuesday’s letter from Deputy Secretary Trottenberg, Acting Administrator
Lessley, and Superintendent Buono calling for a Sea Year “pause”?

Despite our concern about a short-term standdown – and the historical evidence that this may make conditions worse not better for women currently at sea – we are hopeful that the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) is on top of this issue. They have listened to every stakeholder, are being deliberative, and are committed to doing what is right for the nation’s security as well as female midshipmen. There are multiple investigations into the misconduct, and we believe these should play out before any major decisions are made in terms of modifying mission-critical Sea Year training aboard commercial vessels.

We know from the prolonged Sea Year suspension five years ago that female mariners felt hostility and repercussions when they returned to sea. Unfortunately, many mariners blamed women for the suspension. We can’t allow that mindset to prevail. We are cautiously optimistic, given that DOT, MARAD, and the Academy are considering suggestions from concerned stakeholders, including the Alumni Association & Foundation, to improve the safety protocols and these measures are under active consideration. We stand ready to assist in any way possible, including sharing our proposals to keep USMMA cadets safe during their Sea Year training.
Why do you believe commercial ships are the best place to train USMMA cadets? State Maritime Academy cadets train aboard MARAD training ships.
As the Office of Management and Budget has noted, the “USMMA exists to meet a quantifiable public need, producing merchant marine officers to an established technical standard for Defense and Security requirements. The OMB also notes that state maritime academies “produce Merchant Marine Officers for industry,” not for national defense.
Both are obviously essential for the nation’s maritime posture, but every USMMA graduate is obligated to serve the nation in times of war. Congress clearly understood this when it mandated that Maritime Security Program vessels, Military Sealift Command ships, and vessels owned, operated, or contracted to the US government carry at least two USMMA cadets aboard each vessel for hands-on training, preparation, and evaluation. 
Having mariners ready to serve from day one in times of war or national emergency is essential. This is why mission-critical training like Sea Year is so important.

USMMA deck cadets’ training takes place on a diverse array of cargo ships such as oil tankers, container
ships, roll-on-roll-off vessels, bulk carriers, and heavy-lift ships. Deck cadets graduate with real-world experience
moving those cargos on and off the vessels, piloting and navigating the ships, and conducting routine
and emergency operations.
USMMA engine cadets’ training takes place on ships with a variety of propulsion plants, including slow-speed diesel engines, medium-speed diesel engines, diesel-electric drive, steam turbine engines, and gas turbine engines. They gain first-hand experience in operating and maintaining a wide range of propulsion plants and conducting routine and emergency operations.
If you don’t support a stand-down, what do you propose?

First, the consequences of any solution should not be borne by the cadets. Companies must do more to ensure a safe working environment and weed out criminals and other bad actors who are hostile to women working offshore.

Remember, the type of conduct that Midshipman X described is felonious activity that needs to be punished severely when it occurs.  

Second, we have offered several suggestions to DOT and MARAD. The first is to better utilize a program similar to the military’s CATCH program, which gives victims making a restricted report an opportunity to anonymously disclose specific suspect information to help the Department of Defense identify serial offenders. To be effective, such a program would have to be employed across all reporting channels (Companies, Academy, Coast Guard) and implemented by DOT/MARAD.

We also recommend an intensive “Prep at Sea for Sea Year” program. The USMMA has a small training ship, T/V Kings Pointer. Our idea is to mandate that all midshipmen should undergo a two-week, immersive offshore preparation program before their first Sea Year sailing. Small groups would take part in role-playing to understand SASH warning signs and how to react to harassment and assault. Bystander training would help prepare sea partners to better protect their fellow cadets. Cadets would master the satellite technology they take with them to report incidents or make inquiries. They’d learn more about the options they have to report misconduct should the need arise.
We also recommended a mandatory mentorship program for all midshipmen heading to sea. An independent mentor mariner who meets their designated cadet via Zoom, before, during, and after the cadet goes to sea would be invaluable, especially for those cadets sailing for the first time. We’d also recommend that female cadets be placed with female mariners currently sailing whenever possible.

Do you have any thoughts to offer to the Maritime Industry?

I recently read an article posted on the website of Women Offshore, “Change Is On The Horizon – Here’s Where You Can Start”, that I highly recommend to those in the maritime industry, both ashore and afloat. It’s written by a change management expert, and it provides a valuable roadmap to companies seeking to improve the culture aboard ships. I’d especially like to flag recommendation #7: “Avoid knee-jerk reactions and large-scale swift change if you have not yet understood the potential unintended consequences on your workforce. What can feel like a protective measure to those in leadership can be received as a paternalistic limiting of opportunity to those that it’s intended to help, (for example: restricting the access of women to offshore environments).”

What does the future look like for female mariners?

When women make up a small fraction of any organization, they are put under a microscope, isolated from support and, whether intentional or not, often end up shoehorned into predefined and antiquated gender roles. Therefore, the need for more women at sea and in maritime leadership positions is imperative. Once women comprise a larger share of the maritime workforce, we will see permanent, positive change.

All of us – especially industry – have to make a concerted effort to recruit, hire and keep women at sea. There is no other way.

Jim Tobin is President and CEO of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation (AAF)

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