In a break with the tradition of having someone with a maritime background at the helm, a retired Army officer has been named superintendent of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
Retired Army Col. James Helis took over in July as the fourth superintendent at Kings Point in as many years.
Helis, a 30-year Army veteran, spent the past eight years as a department chair at the United States Army War College. He has no nautical background.
But in announcing the appointment June 25, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called Helis, 55, an “ideal fit. His extensive military and academic experience reflects the academy’s mission of both training and educating its students to support our country’s maritime needs.”
James Tobin, president of the academy’s Alumni Association and Foundation, said Helis has the confidence of the alumni despite not having any experience in the industry.
“We’re happy with the choice,” Tobin said. “He’s got leadership ability. He doesn’t have a maritime background and we’re disappointed about that. But we will support him anyway we can. Hopefully he can provide the leadership this fine institution needs.”
In an interview with Professional Mariner, Helis said he will rely on academy and industry stakeholders to help him become more familiar with maritime needs.
“I’m not a boater, but there’s a great team that serves all the development needs of the midshipmen. I think my experience in higher education, my experience with the military and my experience in leader development will help me with the job,” Helis said. “There’s a great team there, both at the academy and MarAd and in the private sector that I can tap into to help me get up to speed and learn what I need to learn about the maritime industry.”
Being the fourth superintendent in four years at a school that has experienced some turmoil over its mission and needs $300 million in facility repairs doesn’t daunt him.
“I see the academy as a great institution with great people,” he said. “It’s got great support from Secretary LaHood and the department, from the alumni, from industry. So all those stakeholders will work together and are interested in the long-term health of the academy. The daunting part is that it’s a large, complex institution with a critical mission to serve the nation. But I feel I am up to the challenge.”
Helis added that the school’s draft strategic plan, which is out for public comment, is “a solid document for setting the course for the academy’s future.” He said he wants to finalize the plan after reviewing all the public comments before making any specific plans for the academy.
As for the academy’s future continuing-education plans following the elimination of the existing program in July, he said, “That’s something I have to go through the planning process on.”
Since 2004, Helis had led the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. During his three decades in the Army, Helis served as a ranger and master parachutist and is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he served as chief of plans for the NATO International Security Assistance Force. His professional foreign travel includes Belgium, Canada, Estonia, France, Germany, Haiti, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia and Sweden.
A graduate of West Point and the University of Pennsylvania, Helis earned his doctorate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“Thanks to a thorough search process involving faculty, staff, midshipmen, parents and alumni, we have identified a true leader in Col. Helis,” U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda said. “As superintendent for Kings Point, he will bring energy and experience to our team and will help ensure that the academy continues to chart a course for future success.”
William Johnsen, dean of academics at the War College, said, “While I regret that the U.S. Army War College will lose a superb department chair, Kings Point is gaining a proven leader and soldier-scholar.”
Helis and his wife, Jan, have two sons, Corbin, 22, a 2011 West Point graduate, and Ian, 18, who joins the Kings Point Class of 2016 this summer.