Pitt cites safety concerns over ship
Filing notes wave damage last winter to Semester at Sea vessel
Thursday, June 09, 2005
By Bill Schackner and Sally Kalson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The University of Pittsburgh has asserted in an Allegheny County court filing that there are "grave concerns" about the safety of the Semester at Sea ship.
AP file photo
The MV Explorer
Semester at Sea disputes Pitt's safety allegations (6/8/05)
Pitt cuts ties with Semester at Sea (6/7/05)
Semester at Sea students enjoy a return to dry land (2/2/05)
Pitt students, faculty safe as 50-foot wave slams into ship (1/28/05)
The charge is part of Pitt's response to a lawsuit filed in Common Pleas Court on Friday accusing the university of breach of contract for ending its 24-year sponsorship of the study-abroad program.
Pitt's assertions, which were immediately disputed yesterday by Semester at Sea, appeared to differ in tone from public comments Pitt made earlier this week about the safety of the floating campus on which hundreds of students earn college credits.
And the claims served to intensify a dispute that is unfolding publicly just days before the vessel is set to depart for its summer voyage with students from some 200 campuses.
In the filing, Pitt cited damage to Semester at Sea's MV Explorer by a 50-foot wave that hit the vessel in rough seas off the Alaskan coast in January, and said its sister ship, the MV Voyager, operated by another company, was damaged in the Mediterranean by a similar wave days later.
Pitt attached to its filing printouts from Lloyd's List, a British Web site that covers maritime issues, and Worldroom.com, a travel-oriented site. A posting on Worldroom questioned the Explorer's chosen route, and the Lloyd's site attributed both ships' "vulnerability" to their speed and design.
Additionally, Pitt attached a report from Liberty Maritime Corp., an engineering consultant to Semester at Sea, regarding the MV Explorer. It said "the primary reasons for the sustained damages was the on-board management choices to proceed into weather of this severity (of course, at the time of departure from Vancouver, the degree of weather severity was not fully known)."
That report also said the vessel "was constructed and classified in accordance with all required international standards" and has proven "to be worthy of its original design and classification notations."
Calls yesterday to the Connecticut office of V. Ships, which manages operation of the Semester at Sea ship, were not returned.
In the filing, Pitt said it sought assurances from the Institute for Shipboard Education, which operates Semester at Sea, about the safety and suitability of the vessel as a floating classroom. But the university says it instead received "abbreviated reports" that raised questions about safety and past operation.
Les McCabe, president of the institute, said yesterday he was baffled by Pitt's assertions and called them damaging to the program.
He repeated the institute's position that the ship passes muster with every appropriate regulatory body, including the U.S. Coast Guard, and that an exhaustive review by Semester at Sea after the January mishap found the ship seaworthy.
He questioned whether the Internet criticisms of the ship's design and operation cited by Pitt were written by people qualified to make such statements.
"We believe the ship is safe. I personally believe the ship is one of the safest, if not the safest ship, that's out there. That's why I feel comfortable taking my wife and kids on board," said McCabe, who will serve as executive dean on the summer voyage set to depart from Halifax, Nova Scotia, June 17.
Because of the January wave, Semester at Sea now avoids the northern Pacific during winter trips, McCabe said. And in response to the damage and power loss to the ship resulting from the wave, the vessel's bridge windows have been thickened, the frames around them reinforced, and a system to transfer ship control from the bridge to the engineering room has been simplified.
The Semester at Sea program, sponsored by Pitt since 1980, has been a visible component of its international offerings. Just this spring one of Semester at Sea's initiatives was profiled in Pitt Magazine.
The lawsuit filed by the institute follows Pitt's decision in May to sever ties with the program. The university informed the campus that while it would provide academic credit for this summer's trip, Pitt faculty would be paid by Semester at Sea rather than the university.
Earlier this week, Pitt spokesman Robert Hill said, "The university is NOT saying that the upcoming voyages will be unsafe," before adding that the institute had not provided adequate risk assessment information.
One safety issue cited by the university was the ship's visit in the spring to Kenya despite a State Department travel warning.
Pitt currently has at least two other projects in Kenya -- a malaria study by the Graduate School of Public Health in collaboration with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, and the Kenya Pediatric HIV Project, in which Pitt medical students will travel to Kenya later this month.
Just last year, a university committee of six professors convened by Provost James Maher completed an eight-month internal review of Semester at Sea's academic program. The group was chaired by Dennis Looney, an associate professor of Italian and academic dean on Semester at Sea's spring 2000 voyage.
Pitt has ordered that the report be kept secret, which Looney said he finds "puzzling."
"It was a very positive report," he said, "but the university will not release it and we've been told not to go into any details about it. I assume the report has been caught in the middle of this ongoing struggle and now the legal issues between Pitt and the institute."
William Brustein, director of Pitt's University Center for International Studies, encompassing 19 centers and programs, said he hopes Pitt students will be able to participate in Semester at Sea when the program finds a new sponsor.
"We'll be looking at what Semester at Sea provided for our faculty and students, to see what kinds of transnational programs [we can] create here to offer them similar opportunities."
Looney was doubtful that anything would be comparable.
"It's impossible to replace something like Semester at Sea," he said. "Pitt will be really hard-pressed to find anything that comes close.
"Students don't only benefit because they can go, but because their teachers have gone. They come back with new perspectives that inform their teaching. The best way to internationalize the campus is to globalize the faculty. If the program leaves, it takes that away from everyone."
In addition, he said, "Semester at Sea has a big impact on perceptions of the city and the region. If it goes, that's one more thing that's leaving, and it make me very sad."
He said the falling-out puts Pitt students and personnel in the same position as children whose parents can't get along.
"We're the ones getting the shaft," he said. "The university will survive and Semester at Sea will find a new sponsor, but we're like the kids who bear the brunt."
(Bill Schackner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977. Sally Kalson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1610.)