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U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Funding on Upswing

“A priority,” says Department of Transportation Secretary LaHood

Even the Secretary of the Department of Transportation experiences flying delays. Turns out, it is a level playing field when flying machines go wrong, but he and his staff still made it to Kings Point on Tuesday last week after early morning delays. Secretary Ray LaHood addressed an assemblage of faculty, staff, and midshipmen to formally announce an infusion of $54 million to upgrade construction and renovation at the Academy.

Secretary LaHood said, “The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is one of my top priorities. The improvements we’ve already made and the new renovations announced today are an important step. Together with the strategic plan, they will help ensure the Academy’s success well into the future.”

He emphasized his commitment to work with Congress in order to properly fund the Academy and to bring its infrastructure to a “state-of-the-art” condition.

In 2009, Secretary LaHood had demonstrated his concern about the state of the Academy by appointing a blue ribbon panel to study all aspects of the Academy’s viability. The report’s assessment was blunt. Unless there was an up-tick in capital funding for the facility, its buildings, its labs, and its vessels, it might not be able to attract and keep high caliber professors and students. The panel predicted that if the institution stayed on its current course, it was also in jeopardy of losing its accreditation.

The Record reported on the precarious situation on Jan. 19, 2012 and the administration assured the public that the Academy’s funding for operations and capital improvements was on the rise. At the time of our report, acting Superintendent Shashi Kumar had sent a chart which indicated that the amount for capital improvements for this fiscal year was $22.9 million.

Secretary La Hood indicated when he met with reporters on Tuesday following the assembly with students, faculty and staff that the $54 million was “new money.” If understood correctly, that would mean a total of $ 76.9 million to finish the work on Mallory Pier which is about 825 fee long, renovate Delano Hall, update the electrical grid which according to the Secretary’s blog, Fast Lane, has not had a major revamping since its installation in the 1940s and other improvements not specified.

The 2012 operating budget rose by 6 percent from the 2011 budget and adds $250,000 for up to five additional staff members to manage the improvement program and facility maintenance.

It has now become public knowledge that the catering service at Melville Hall run by Great Neck restaurateur Richard Stancati will not be available after Sept. 30 for numerous community groups that run fund raisers and events at the gracious facility that has dramatic views of Long Island Sound. The Record specifically asked Secretary LaHood if he placed value on the relationship between the community and the Academy. He said he did. We asked what his plans were to sustain and enhance that relationship. He said that as part of the strategic plan, there would be meetings with “neighbors” to insure continued cooperation between the Academy and the Great Neck community. He added that Melville Hall would be renovated.

He commented that the search for a new superintendent is underway and also a high priority. The salary range is between $119,500 and $179,700 per year. The current acting superintendent, Dr. Shashi Kumar is doing double- duty as he is also the Academic Dean and the Assistant Superintendent for Academic Affairs.

The superintendent position was left vacant in October of 2011 when Rear Admiral Philip Greene, Jr. was reassigned to the Department of Transportation Chair at the National Defense University after having served at the Academy for only one year. In reviewing blogs from the various Kings Point alumni associations, it is apparent that this was a highly unpopular “reassignment” as Rear Admiral Greene, a graduate of the Academy himself, was widely and highly respected.

The Maritime Administration, which falls under the Department of Transportation on the government’s organizational chart, has direct oversight responsibilities for the Academy. Its chief administrator, David Matsuda, did not attend the events at the Kings Point facility last week.