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June 9, 2005

Pitt to end pact with Semester at Sea program

Pitt and the Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE) reportedly have reached an agreement in principle that could end their squabbles over Pitt’s decision to drop academic sponsorship of the ISE Semester at Sea program.

Pitt notified ISE May 2 that the University was ending its 24-year role as SAS’s academic sponsor on May 3, 2007, giving the two years’ notice required by Pitt’s contract.

But a lawsuit, filed by ISE in Common Pleas Court June 3, alleges that Pitt is in breach of contract for resisting repeated requests by ISE for dispute mediation as prescribed in the two parties’ most recent contract agreement, which was signed in June 2001.

According to Les McCabe, ISE president, and Paul Watson, ISE director of enrollment management, the University and ISE reached an agreement “in principle” Tuesday night for Pitt to provide academic credit for Semester at Sea’s voyages through spring of next year.

“It’s our expectation that the agreement would be finalized today,” said Watson on Wednesday afternoon as the University Times went to press. He declined to discuss specifics of the agreement.

“If we have this agreement in place, it would resolve the major differences in continuing the Semester at Sea program with Pitt sponsorship through spring,” McCabe said. “This agreement will preserve the integrity of the academic program for the students who are enrolled in the fall and spring terms.

Robert Hill, vice chancellor for Public Affairs, declined to confirm information on any agreement.

A dispute over a new contract, as well as communication breakdowns and disagreements with Pitt about the program’s safety, led to ISE filing the lawsuit.

Court documents supporting ISE’s allegations include letters from Pitt Provost James V. Maher to John Tymitz, chief executive officer of ISE. In a letter dated May 2, Maher informed Tymitz “that the University of Pittsburgh will no longer participate in the Semester at Sea program after May 3, 2007.”

In reaching this decision, Maher cited Pitt’s concerns, including:

• Efforts to resolve unspecified claims stemming from a decade-old dispute arising from the deaths of five program participants in India.

• The “processes” through which ISE decided in 2004 to acquire a different flag ship, the MV Explorer, despite reservations by ISE’s own board. That decision had, among other consequences, raised Pitt’s concerns for safety related to the design of the ship, Maher stated.

• The decision to put Kenya on a recent itinerary despite U.S. State Department travel advisories.

• The perceived backing away by ISE from a presumed agreement on a new contract, reached in January.

In a May 5 letter from Maher to Tymitz, the provost elaborated on Pitt’s concerns, charging that ISE left unanswered repeated requests by Pitt “for detailed assurances” that the MV Explorer was seaworthy. Maher further maintained that ISE’s decision to part ways with the Seawise Foundation, which for many years had supplied both SAS’s previous ship, the S.S. Universe Explorer, as well as superior maritime management expertise, raised serious safety issues.

In that May 5 letter, Maher also stated the University’s belief that the termination period was “lengthy and inherently creates some logistical concerns.” The provost requested that the parties explore “an amicable separation over a much more compressed period of time” than 24 months.

According to the civil suit, ISE requires sufficient time to transition to another academic sponsor. ISE further alleges damage to its image and reputation caused by Pitt, citing a letter from Provost Maher, dated May 27 and marked confidential, to Pitt faculty and staff who are signed up for the summer 2005 voyage.

(The 65-day summer voyage, which has enrolled 466 students including 60 students from Pitt, is scheduled to depart on June 17 from Halifax, Nova Scotia, according to ISE’s Watson.)

In the May 27 letter, Maher states that students on the upcoming summer voyage will earn Pitt’s academic credits. But he further states, “We will not have anyone on the soon-to-commence voyage in any role that represents the University of Pittsburgh. You may, of course, choose to take a leave from what University responsibilities you might otherwise have during the upcoming voyage and contract as an individual with the ISE to serve on its staff/faculty during the upcoming voyage.”

The lawsuit charges that the May 27 letter indicates that Pitt has “ceased its participation in the Semester at Sea program,” thus breaching the contract.

The suit states, “No amount of financial compensation will be sufficient to remediate the damage to ISE’s image and reputation that will result if an amicable resolution and termination of the 2001 agreement is not reached through the mandated dispute resolution procedure.”

Specifically, the civil suit asks the court to:

• Require Pitt to participate in a mediation process as prescribed in the 2001 contract;

• Appoint a mediator;

• Require that the status quo be maintained with respect to the 2001 agreement until the completion of mediation;

• Prohibit Pitt from issuing any additional unilateral notices to students, faculty, staff or media outlets regarding the status of its participation in the SAS program, and require that any disputes over jointly issued statements be resolved by the mediator, and

• Require that all costs and attorneys’ fees be paid by the University.

In a May 25 letter to Pitt administrators from Joseph Katarincic, an attorney representing ISE in the lawsuit, Katarincic wrote that Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, among others, would be acceptable to ISE as the dispute mediator.

Katarincic did not return a phone request from the University Times for elaboration on ISE’s position. But ISE official Watson told the University Times this week that charges of safety concerns by Pitt were unfounded.

“Safety is foremost in our planning and thinking,” Watson said. The ship is in full compliance with all regulatory bodies for safety, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the International Maritime Organization and the Convention of Safety of Life at Sea, he said.

Additionally, ISE voluntarily called for inspections by DNV (a division of Det Norske Veritas, which is an independent foundation established in 1864 as a ship classification society) to investigate and assess the ship after it sustained damage from a 50-foot wave in the North Pacific in January, making international news.

“DNV’s report said the Explorer proved to be a safe ship in the circumstances encountered,” Watson said. “The Explorer is a relatively new ship, considered as safe as any other vessel in her class. She was built in a high-quality shipyard, is operated by one of the largest ship management companies in the market and is sailed by experienced officers and crew,” he said.

ISE spent about $2 million on vessel modifications to ensure that a similar incident would not occur, including modification to the bridge, windows and the navigation system, Watson added.

McCabe added that the SAS program uses several sources to assess security risks in foreign countries. “We scrutinize our itineraries continually,” he said.

In the case of Semester at Sea’s stop in Kenya, McCabe pointed out that the U.S. State Department’s travel warning did not advise against travel to Kenya, unlike travel warnings to countries such as Iraq or Somalia.

The travel warning in Kenya called for “careful consideration” according to McCabe. And ISE exercised caution, consulting with regional security officers at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, he said. In addition, ISE used a security assessment from iJET, an independent risk assessment company that ISE contracts with, McCabe added.

In a public statement released this week by Pitt, spokesperson Hill stated, “The University is not saying that upcoming voyages will be unsafe.

“Instead, what we are saying to ISE is that those participating in the program, both institutions and individuals, are entitled to the kind of information that will better enable them to assess involved risk.”

Requests for such information have been unsuccessful, Hill added, forcing the University to end its role as academic sponsor of SAS.

“We regretfully notified ISE of that decision nearly a month ago and have been attempting to come to agreement on a transition plan since then. Those efforts, too, have been largely unsuccessful,” Hill stated.

—Peter Hart & Mary Ann Thomas

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