Report: 'Us versus them' mindset, fear shaping USMMA culture

The following is an executive summary of a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation on the culture at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMAA):

(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA, or academy) in Kings Point, N.Y., is one of five federal service academies. The academy falls under the purview of the Maritime Administration (MarAd) within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). A key element of the USMMA curriculum involves the academy’s Sea Year program, during which midshipmen gain hands-on experience serving aboard U.S. naval Military Sealift Command vessels or commercial U.S. flagships.

In June 2016, MSCHE issued a report directing USMMA to take steps to build a climate of mutual respect and trust on campus and during the Sea Year program. Specifically, the MSCHE evaluation team noted that the campus climate — and in particular, incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment — has been a serious and recognized problem for over 10 years; to be in compliance with MSCHE accreditation standards, USMMA must improve the safety and climate of respect for midshipmen during Sea Year.

In reaction to these findings and the persistence of indications of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the Department of Defense’s Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) Service Academy Gender Relations (SAGR) surveys and focus groups, DOT and MarAd directed USMMA to stand-down the Sea Year Program on commercial vessels. DOT then selected LMI to conduct a 60-day independent culture audit with two primary objectives:

• Identify the current institutional climate at USMMA and any contributing subcultures.
• Analyze the nature and scope of the problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus and at sea, derived from recent reports, research, survey data, policies, and interview.

To perform the audit, LMI reviewed literature, conducted interviews of academy stakeholders, analyzed and compared data, and developed findings and recommendations. Specifically, we conducted 162 interviews with DOT Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST), MarAd leaders, and USMMA Advisory Board members; academy leaders, staff and faculty members, and midshipmen; industry and maritime union representatives, including ship officers and crews; and USMMA alumni. We identified academy sexual assault prevention and response gaps relative to comparator organizations, namely federal service academies and state maritime academies. We then identified recommendations that will enable the academy to begin closing the gaps and address the underlying root causes contributing to the current climate.

As found through our literature review, data from the 2013-2014 DMDC SAGR surveys show that 63 percent of women respondents indicated experiencing sexual harassment or similar behaviors and 17 percent of women respondents indicated that they had experienced sexual assault in the previous year. These numbers for sexual harassment are almost one-third higher than the military service academies’ average of the same statistic, 48 percent, and these numbers for sexual assault are double the 8 percent military service academies’ average proportion. In addition, 11 of 162 interviewees indicated they had experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment while at the academy or during Sea Year.

Although the academy has taken actions to address sexual assault and sexual harassment, the underlying climate contributing to these issues remains. This climate has been shaped by the strong cultural influences of the military and the maritime industry. While these dual influences have helped to enable an academy culture focused on service, self-sacrifice, self-reliance, discipline, and teamwork, they also have caused a split identity at the academy. As a result, midshipmen straddle between regiment and limited oversight at sea.

Academy culture

In addition to its split identity, the academy is fragmented in other ways. We found an “us versus them” mindset shaping academy culture across various dimensions, including male versus female midshipmen; midshipmen versus the leadership, staff, and faculty; and uniformed versus civilian faculty. The academy is also marked by a sense of victimhood, with some staff and faculty members and midshipmen feeling that they are treated unfairly and are unable to improve the situation. Fear, in multiple forms, also plays a strong role in shaping attitudes and behaviors at the academy — fear for the future of the Academy and the maritime industry in general; fear of being “blacklisted” by industry or jeopardizing chances of graduation; and fear of retaliation, ostracism, and bullying.

Alcohol use is another important component of the academy’s culture. Academy disciplinary records confirm that alcohol is one of the most common serious disciplinary offenses, and many interviewees cited alcohol as being a factor in incidents of sexual assault.

Finally, the Sea Year program is an important part of the academy’s culture. Sea Year, a key experiential learning component of the academy’s curriculum, enables midshipmen to obtain technical, professional, and development skills that they can carry forward into their careers. It is integral, but it also exposes cadets to a world far different from regimental life. This exposure, and ship life in general, changes midshipmen. A male faculty member said, “Students come in as nice people but change after Sea Year. The brothels socialize the white male majority. It is the way they become a man.” In addition, reintegration has led to “trickle down” effects from older midshipmen returning from sea to the third- and fourth-class midshipmen on campus. Sea Year, fragmentation, fear, and alcohol, among other cultural dimensions, intersect and intertwine, creating barriers and limiting the academy’s ability to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment and address the underlying root causes.

We identified lack of respect for personal dignity and personal differences, lack of trust, and lack of personal ownership of issues as the root causes shaping the current climate. These root causes then create barriers (victim blaming, denial of the problem, etc.) and manifest in behaviors such as ostracism and inaction. Understanding these barriers and not tolerating behaviors that manifest from them are critical to enabling culture change.

Key findings and recommendations

Beyond identifying root causes and barriers, understanding the current state at the institution is critical for preventing and addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment and changing the culture. Our key findings and gaps relative to the current organization and operations include the following:

• Academy leadership and management does not present a unified message regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment.
• Current sexual assault and sexual harassment programs tend to be reactive rather than based on a unified, strategic approach.
• The emphasis on the academy’s core values is understated.
• Fear of retaliation and victim blaming that hinders intervention and reporting impedes progress toward addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment.
• The academy and MarAd lack a program to ensure that shipping companies have adequate policies and procedures in place during Sea Year.
• Academy policies, guides, and programs require improvements to fully prepare and support midshipmen for Sea Year.

To close these gaps and address the root causes of sexual assault and sexual harassment, we recommend that the academy undertakes a strategic approach that includes the following:

1. Build and align academy leadership and management team across all levels of the institution.
2. Develop a comprehensive and integrated Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response Strategic Campaign Plan that will integrate all actions to bring about mutual respect and zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment.
3. Build shared ownership between the academy, MarAd, and industry, with a sustained public commitment to improve the culture and bring about zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment.
4. Infuse core values into all aspects of academy life.
5. Change the paradigm from blaming the victim to advocating for and protecting the victim.
6. Instill a sense of personal responsibility for preventing and addressing sexual harassment, sexual assault, and retaliation at all levels within USMMA to build and institutionalize a culture of trust, respect, and accountability.

To improve the Sea Year program, we recommend that USMMA and MarAd establish a process for credentialing shipping companies for participation in Sea Year, make improvements to more fully prepare and support midshipmen in the Sea Year program, and establish a robust, continual feedback process from Sea Year.

To read the complete report, click here.

By Professional Mariner Staff