McFeely: State’s leaders should get use of private planes, not force fake humility

The Grand Forks Herald had an interesting editorial the other day. It advocated that those searching for a new University of North Dakota president should ask the candidates whether they fly business or coach class.

Mike McFeely

The Grand Forks Herald had an interesting editorial the other day. It advocated that those searching for a new University of North Dakota president should ask the candidates whether they fly business or coach class.

The editorial claimed it was being serious, which is troublesome in and of itself. The point, I’ve been told, was that university presidents in North Dakota need to understand the state’s culture and not act too self-important.

This, of course, was a shot at the North Dakota State University president who had the audacity to book a higher-class flight for a 15,000-mile round-trip business flight to India and Malaysia, his first international trip in a six-year tenure.

There was no word from the Herald editorial writer whether university department chairmen being arrested for possessing child pornography fits in with the state’s culture, but that is beside the point and we don’t want to get sidetracked.

It’s apparently very important to some North Dakotans - maybe many of them - that powerful people in the state put on a facade of phony regularness and humility. It is not enough to be intelligent, driven, well-educated, successful and eminently qualified to do your prescribed job. No, you must also not act like you are intelligent, driven, well-educated, successful and eminently qualified. You must put out the phony vibe that you are a regular jabroni, lest you offend the scores of all the real regular jabronis out there.


One of the ways you can accomplish this is to fly coach. Because regular jabronis fly coach. And so the most powerful people in North Dakota - the governor, lieutenant governor, the state university system chancellor and major university presidents - have to fly coach.

This accomplishes nothing of substance, of course, other than allowing staff members to brag that their boss flies coach (other than at high-falutin’ NDSU, that is) and therefore is just like all the other regular jabronis in North Dakota. It’s all about the culture, you see.

What nobody dares address is that perhaps it would be beneficial for powerful people to not only fly first-class when doing the state’s business, but to maybe even have private planes at their disposal. At taxpayer expense. Gasp.

Because here’s the deal: When you are the chief executive officer of a state or the leader of a major university and you are flying to Washington, D.C., or Denver or Dallas or Israel or India to do business, the time you spend getting there and the comfort in which you travel is important. There is a reason VIPs in the private sector use private aviation to get from Point A to Points B and C. Because using their time and energy as efficiently as possible is important.

You’d think the same idea would apply to VIPs in the public sector, but nothing could be further from the truth - especially in the aw-shucks culture of North Dakota. People on the public payroll are expected to be humble servants, even if you’re overseeing an entity with a $3.5 billion annual budget like Gov. Jack Dalrymple is.

For my money, the governor and other high-ranking state officials should have a private jet at their disposal. Ditto the presidents of UND, NDSU and other colleges. And they should use them at their reasonable discretion without fear of reprisal.

It’ll never happen, of course. It wouldn’t fit the culture of North Dakota. The rich and powerful might be seen as what they are - rich and powerful - and we couldn’t have that. They are on the public payroll and must act ordinary, if they are not ordinary. Otherwise somebody might be offended.

So we’ll continue to force important people doing important business to play into stereotypes and phony humility because how something is perceived is more important than reality.


Maybe the Herald should’ve taken this culture thing to another level. Maybe it should’ve suggested UND presidential candidates show up for their interviews wearing flannel shirts and

Carhartts instead of suits and ties, because the state’s culture demands it. A background check could reveal whether they’re driving a 2015 Lexus or a 1995 F-150 with a dented side panel. Nothing too fancy allowed in this culture.

You know, if we’re going to go down the culture road, let’s go all the way down it. Given North Dakota’s love affair with alcohol, maybe the candidates should do a little binge-drinking before their interviews and show up stinking drunk. That’d fit right in with the culture. Anything to make guys with Ph.D.s making $370,000 a year running a campus with a half-billion dollar budget look like regular jabronis.

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