Breaks off 24-year deal in dispute over governance, safety
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
By Sally Kalson and Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The University of Pittsburgh has abruptly severed its 24-year sponsorship of Semester at Sea, citing concerns about safety and governance of the ship's operation. In response, Semester at Sea's parent company, the Institute for Shipboard Education, on Friday filed a court action to stop Pitt's withdrawal, claiming contract violations and irreparable harm to the program.
"We found ourselves in the position of a frustrated spouse who has tried to keep the marriage going but in the end has to accept that it's over," said Pitt spokesman Robert Hill. Hill said a joint statement might be forthcoming after further discussions.
No one from Semester at Sea could be reached for comment and there was no mention of the upheaval on its Web site.
It was uncertain yesterday if the dispute would have an impact on the summer 2005 voyage, slated to depart June 17 from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a nine-week trip. Hill said Pitt faculty members who chose to go would be paid by Semester at Sea instead of the university, and that Pitt would still grant academic credit to the students on this last trip.
"The University is NOT saying that the upcoming voyages will be unsafe," the Pitt statement said, before adding that the institute has not provided sufficient risk-assessment information.
Since 1980, Pitt has been the academic sponsor of the "floating university" that takes college students around the world as they earn credits toward their degrees. The operator of the program is a nonprofit educational corporation with offices in the university's William Pitt Union.
In a letter dated May 2, 2005, Pitt Provost James Maher told John Tymitz, the institute's CEO, that the school was cutting its ties. He cited unresolved claims from the deaths of five program participants in India almost 10 year ago; concerns about the process used in acquiring the new ship that sustained storm damage in January; and the program's decision to visit Kenya on its most recent voyage despite a State Department travel advisory.
Hill attributed many of these problems to Semester at Sea's decision to end its long affiliation with the Seawise Foundation, which until a year ago supplied the ship that housed the program and also furnished "a level of proven maritime management expertise on which the university had come to rely."
The institute's lawsuit counters with these claims:
The contract between the institute and Pitt requires 24 months notice before termination unless both parties agree on a compressed time period, but Pitt shortened that period unilaterally after negotiations broke down.
Pitt has refused to enter mediation as required by the contract.
The school sent a letter to faculty and staff who were scheduled to sail on the summer 2005 voyage, telling them that if they go, they would have to take an unpaid leave of absence from Pitt. This has caused irreparable harm to the program, "in that some, if not all, of the faculty and staff committed to the upcoming voyage will no longer be able to afford to participate." As a result, the summer 2005 voyage may not be able to take place.
In violation of their agreement, Pitt gave the institute an ultimatum: notify all students registered for the trip about the university's withdrawal, or Pitt would do so on its own.
Pitt's withdrawal on such short notice hurts the students who were expecting to earn credits toward their college degrees.
The lawsuit asks the court to order Pitt to stop sending notices about its withdrawal from the program to students, faculty and staff, and to enter mediation with the institute within seven days of the order. It also asks the court to appoint a mediator -- noting that the institute had offered to let Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg serve in that capacity -- and to keep the current agreement in place in the meantime.
Robert Fessler, a Point Park University psychology professor who has taught on four voyages, reacted with surprise and sadness yesterday to hear that Pitt's sponsorship is ending.
"There is something about being able to move around the world from one country to the next and be able to compare and contrast the different cultures," Fessler said. "I think it's unparalleled. There are lots of study abroad programs, but not like this."
As long as the new sponsor is a reputable institution like Pitt, he said, individual trip-goers may not feel much change. But he called the move a loss for higher education in Western Pennsylvania since the voyages draw participants from across the nation and world.
"It raises the visibility of the education community in Western Pennsylvania in a positive way," he said.
Semester at Sea, originally called the University of the Seven Seas, was founded in 1963 by a group of California educators and business people. Over the years, the floating campus and its passengers have taken part in some ground-breaking trips to places once taboo for U.S. travelers.
A stop in Vietnam was the first large-scale visit by American college students since the Vietnam War. The program has made similar visits to China, South Africa and the former Soviet Union.
In spring of 1999, the group made what was believed to be the largest sanctioned visit to Cuba by a collection of American college students in nearly four decades. Fidel Castro was a fan of the program and sometimes lectured Semester at Sea students for hours on end.
But the program has also endured hardship.
In January of this year, a 50-foot wave hit the vessel as it traveled in stormy seas in the Pacific, shattering a window on the bridge and temporarily shorting out the electrical system, leaving the ship running on one engine.
In October of 2000, a container ship sideswiped the program's former vessel, the S.S. Universe Explorer, on the Saigon River, slicing a 30-foot-long gash in its hull and damaging five student cabins. No one was injured. And in March 1996, five Semester at Sea travelers, four of them students, died in a bus accident in India.
(Sally Kalson was a writing instructor on the Fall 2002 voyage of Semester at Sea. She can be reached at 412-263-1610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bill Schackner can be reached at 412-263-1977 or email@example.com.)
Article from here: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05158/516960.stm