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June 23, 2005

ISE comments on Pitt’s SAS concerns

At the June 13 Senate Council meeting, Pitt Provost James V. Maher reported on the three-year history of the deterioration of the relationship between the University and the Semester at Sea (SAS) program, administered by the Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE), that culminated in a June 9 separation agreement.

(See related story and Pitt/ISE joint statement.)

In his presentation, Maher described Pitt’s concerns, which included: academic issues; ISE’s decision to sever ties with Seawise Foundation, which had managed SAS voyages for more than two decades; circumstances leading to ISE’s purchase of the MV Explorer; the seaworthiness of the MV Explorer, SAS’s flagship since the summer 2004 voyage, following an accident at sea in January, and, what Pitt termed failure to provide repeatedly requested information with which to assess the safety of the ship.

No ISE official attended the June 13 Senate Council meeting.

“We cannot comment on specific remarks that were made or discussions that took place at that meeting,” Paul Watson, director of enrollment management at ISE, told the University Times. “But we wish to openly respond to the University Times to address any questions pertaining to facts as we know them.”

Watson also provided an overview statement to the University Times, which states, in part:

“From the outset of our discussions with the University regarding their request to revise our standing contract, it was our sincere intent to do everything possible to preserve our long and fruitful partnership. We continue to regret that this was not the outcome of those discussions. We feel that it is critically important at this time for us to set aside issues related to those contract discussions and fully address all concerns regarding the safety of our shipboard campus and our operation of the SAS program.”

In interviews with the University Times, Watson and John Tymitz, CEO of ISE, discussed some major issues raised by the provost.


ISE officials insisted that suggestions for academic quality improvements from former academic deans associated with the Semester at Sea program and from other University officials were not ignored by the shipboard education program.

“There has long been a long-standing academic advisory committee that met regularly,” said Watson. Semester at Sea’s academic advisory committee, made up of Pitt faculty and administrators, many of whom had served as academic deans on SAS voyages, had been in existence since the program had come to Pitt in 1981, according to Watson. “It was our belief that their discussions were constructive and fruitful.”

In addition, Watson said, ISE staff had been interviewed by, and cooperated fully with, a provost-appointed committee, formed in May 2003, that was reviewing the SAS academic program.

“We participated in the information-gathering process of the committee with the understanding that when that process was completed [findings] would be shared with the intent to improve the academic program,” Watson said.

No report from that committee was shared with ISE, Watson said. “It was also our understanding that the report initially wasn’t intended to be confidential. It’s impossible to respond to issues presented in it without the report.”

Ship damage and safety assessments

When the MV Explorer was rocked by a 50-foot wave in the North Pacific in January, the ship changed course to dock in Hawaii for repairs. Pitt officials have stated that they did not receive complete and timely information on the damage to the ship and on one of the injuries that occurred during the accident.

Watson said information was given to Pitt as soon as it was available. “University officials were on site when the ship came to Hawaii for repairs,” he noted.

Among the ship’s repairs was work to the bridge, according to Watson. The ship sustained some dents, he acknowledged. After the repairs, the ship was inspected for safety, passing muster of all regulatory authorities, assessments which ISE made available to the University, Watson said.

“The regulatory bodies provide the oversight on any ship,” he explained. “They are very strict and unforgiving that you need to meet the requirements wholly and completely. These are not minimum standards.”

It is important to note the difference between repairs necessitated by the January storm and modifications, Watson said. ISE voluntarily called for an objective evaluation by DNV (a division of Det Norske Veritas, an independent ship classification society) to assess the ship for its seaworthiness, according to ISE CEO Tymitz. Tymitz informed Pitt that ISE had engaged DNV and would share its report when it was completed, which was in May.

“DNV concluded that the ship is well-suited for our mission in terms of where we go and what we use it for. In light of the severity of the weather it encountered in that storm — it performed as well or better than any ship in the MV Explorer’s class,” Watson said.

According to Watson, the DNV report was made available to Pitt but University officials chose not to accept it. “We asked the University to sign a confidentiality agreement — a standard legal request to prevent a document like that from being distributed publicly. From our perspective, it would not have precluded the University from raising concerns about the report’s findings and also, if the University wanted to share it with its own consultants, they could have.”

ISE followed the recommendations of DNV and completed the suggested modifications and enhancements while the ship was dry-docked after the spring semester, according to Watson. “The changes recommended by DNV were simply enhancements to the ship that make it even better — but that’s not saying the ship wasn’t safe to begin with,” he said.

The modifications were completed by the time the ship left dry-dock on June 9, Tymitz said.

Regarding the injured passenger, the injury was first reported as bruised ribs, and later diagnosed as a punctured lung, according to Watson. “She was taken off the ship when it docked in Hawaii, hospitalized, then recuperated at home. About six weeks later, she met the ship in Brazil.”

Separation from the Seawise Foundation

At Senate Council June 13, Provost Maher expressed criticism that ISE had severed ties with the Seawise Foundation, established by the late shipping magnate C.Y. Tung, which had managed the operations of Semester at Sea voyages for more than 20 years.

Maher also charged that ISE had acted unilaterally in the decision, despite expressed objections by the ISE board, of which Maher was a member until he resigned in May 2004.

Tymitz responded that the separation of ISE and the Seawise Foundation was mutual.

“We had had some disagreements with Seawise — more on the management side, not the Tung family — but we felt we had ironed them out,” Tymitz said. “The University also knew we were in negotiations with Seawise, who had indicated to us over the last few years that they wanted to pull back, to remove themselves from the day-to-day management of the ship.”

“In fact,” Watson added, “Seawise sub-contracted with V.Ships (a global fleet management company) to manage the previous ship. And this is the same company managing the Explorer now. We are not ship experts, but we hired an expert ship company to manage it on our behalf.”

Purchase of new ship and safety concerns

Pitt officials have said a respected shipping trade publication had called into question the design of the MV Explorer as suitable for SAS voyages.

“ISE stands by its decision to replace its 50-year-old shipboard campus facility, the S.S. Universe Explorer, with the new MV Explorer, [a decision that] was made with the safety of our participants as our first priority,” Watson said.

“The MV Explorer was built by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg, Germany, and went into service in 2002. The vessel was designed and constructed in accordance with all governing rules of the International Maritime Organization, United States Coast Guard and its classification society, Germanischer Lloyd.

“Accordingly,” Watson continued, “the ship complies with or exceeds all requirements of the International Maritime Organization conventions, including International Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Germanischer Lloyd classifies the MV Explorer for unlimited worldwide service, with no area restrictions.

The opportunity to secure an almost brand new ship came up very quickly, ISE officials acknowledged. But there already had been general discussions concerning a new ship between various ISE and University officials, according to Watson.

—Mary Ann Thomas & Peter Hart

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