Buono retiring from USMMA amid ongoing Sea Year challenges

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Superintedent Jack Buono during a visit to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Superintedent Jack Buono during a visit to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Superintedent Jack Buono during a visit to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

Vice Adm. Jack Buono, superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) for the last three-and-a-half years, has announced his retirement after a maritime career spanning more than 45 years.

Buono, 66, is a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and 1978 graduate of the academy located in Kings Point, N.Y. He will formally step down after the June graduation ceremony. The U.S. Department of Transportation has begun a search for his successor.

Buono arrived at the academy in November 2018 after retiring as president and CEO of SeaRiver Maritime, an ExxonMobil marine subsidiary headquartered in Houston. His arrival coincided with the academy’s efforts to rectify bullying, hazing and sexual harassment and assault concerns that caused the 2016 “stand down” of the Sea Year training program.  

Those issues resurfaced last fall after “Midshipman X” published a detailed account of her rape aboard a commercial ship during Sea Year. As of late March, the Sea Year program has partially resumed with new safeguards in place. Buono said his retirement was unrelated to those  challenges.

“Since my arrival, I have thought my term as superintendent would last three to five years,” Buono told Professional Mariner. “It will be four years since I began my journey during the selection process, through my tenure as the 13th superintendent. It seems apropos that my seafaring career would start and end at USMMA.” 

“For Ginger and I,” he continued, “serving as the superintendent and first lady of the academy has been the honor of a lifetime. It has been the most challenging and rewarding job I have ever faced, and I will not soon forget the men and women that have served at my side during this time at USMMA. The young women and men who come here are truly the best and brightest America has to offer. I am amazed at their resilience and perseverance, and know the future of the maritime industry is in good hands with them at the wheel.”

Buono received a round of valedictory statements from many in the U.S. maritime community. Capt. James F. Tobin, president/CEO of the USMMA Alumni Association & Foundation, considers Buono a tireless advocate for the academy who will be remembered as one of its most distinguished alumni. 

“VADM Buono had many accomplishments during his tenure as superintendent, not the least of which was to graduate two classes of midshipmen during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Tobin said. “He was the only superintendent of a federal service academy to do so on schedule. He navigated difficult waters during his four years, and the academy was fortunate to have such an experienced maritime leader at the helm.” 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a statement, thanked Buono for leading the academy through “this period of unprecedented challenge.” Polly Trottenberg, Buttigieg’s deputy secretary, said the agency has launched a search for Buono’s replacement. 

Looking back on his tenure, Buono highlighted the academy’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit New York in successive waves starting in March 2020. He praised the academy for graduating two classes “on time and Covid-free” and said he expects the same from this year’s graduating class.

Buono discussed his efforts to bring infrastructure and other deficiencies to the attention of the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Maritime Administration. He said those efforts have set the stage for future modernization. Buono also led the implementation of “The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Strategic Plan 2018-2023: Navigating Towards the Future Together” that serves as a blueprint for day-to-day operations.

Those efforts notwithstanding, his tenure was marked by the school’s ongoing struggle to prevent sexual misconduct on campus and during in its Sea Year program. The program, dating back to 1942, places students aboard U.S.-flagged merchant and government ships during their sophomore and junior years. Those stints at sea last about 135 days and 265 days, respectively. 

Sea Year, and the USMMA culture in general, have faced intense scrutiny in recent years. Reports of sexual misconduct caused the temporary suspension of Sea Year in 2016, before Buono’s arrival. The program resumed the following year after the USMMA implemented a new “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault and harassment along with new training procedures.

In November 2021, following Midshipman X’s online essay detailing her rape aboard a commercial ship during Sea Year, the academy again suspended the program. It has since partially resumed with new rules in place. The rules fall under the rubric of Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture (EMBARC), which set new standards for preventing and addressing sexual harassment and abuse at sea. 

The academy’s response to bullying, hazing, sexual harassment and assault and other issues on the Kings Point campus are a work in progress. Outside auditors have acknowledged the academy and its administrators are trying to address these issues. However, in a report issued last fall, the National Academy of Public Administration said USMMA must do more. It also identified shortcomings in facilities maintenance and with the academy’s curriculum. 

“USMMA will continue to educate and graduate leaders of exemplary character who are inspired to serve the national security, marine transportation, and economic needs of the United States,” Buono told Professional Mariner. “Each year, the academy provides over 80 percent of the Strategic Sealift officers required to support our nation in times of peace, but especially during times of conflict or war.”

Buono described the academy as “a national treasure” and a gem among the five federal service academies. He expects his successor will build on progress the academy has made on several fronts during his time at the helm. 

“My successor will have every opportunity to continue the work we have started on updating and modernizing the academy infrastructure (outlined in) the strategic plan, and continued compliance with EMBARC standards paving the way for a safer learning environment for seagoing midshipmen,” he said. 

In retirement, Buono and his wife Ginger will return to Texas, where her business is located. The couple has homes in Houston and Galveston.

“We enjoyed our time here,” he said. “We look forward to continuing to support the regiment, and the academy into the future.”