Helicopter parents, impatient trustees, overworked professors, entitled athletics boosters and deeply partisan lawmakers with little cash to spare. It’s enough to make people wonder why anyone would want the job of college president.
Sure, the pay is pretty good, and the perks sizable, from free housing and a company car to travel budgets. But when it comes to running the 21st century American university, the men and women in the president’s office are increasingly on high alert that their stays at the top could prove short.
Look no further than the University of Virginia, where the sudden ouster and subsequent rehiring of President Teresa Sullivan has made national headlines. Or to state flagship universities in Illinois, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin, where presidents resigned or were forced out in the past year after relatively brief stints in charge.
“It’s harder now than ever before,” said Stephen Trachtenberg, who works for a Washington-based higher education executive search firm after spending a total of 30 years as president at George Washington University and the University of Hartford. “You’re trying to fill as many mouths now with short rations.”
A recent survey of more than 1,600 college and university presidents by the American Council on Education found that campus leaders keep their jobs an average of seven years. In 2006, when the previous poll was taken, the average presidential tenure was 8½ years.
The survey found that more college presidents come to the job from outside academia — 1 in 5 in 2011, compared with just 13 percent five years earlier. And nearly one-third of campus presidents and chancellors never were faculty members, coming instead from backgrounds in private business and politics.
At the same time, fewer provosts and chief academic officers — long considered training grounds for future campus bosses — are interested in promotions to the presidency. A 2009 ACE survey, the first of its kind, found that just 30 percent of the 1,700-plus respondents were interested in the executive suite. Interest among women in that survey was 5 percent lower.
The Council of Independent Colleges, a national association of 640 small and mid-sized schools, found similar hesitations among chief academic officers in its own survey one year later. And in a new membership study to be released this month, the group reports that sitting presidents are increasingly reluctant to make a career out of their jobs — nearly half of those interviewed plan to leave within the next five years, with fewer than 1 in 4 planning to seek another presidency.
“There’s no question the job is getting more difficult,” said Richard Ekman, the group’s president and a former vice president at Hiram College in Ohio. “There’s increased government regulation, there’s a need to raise more money, and the college-going population is changing.”
At Virginia, the school’s Board of Visitors fired Sullivan in mid-June after she was on the job less than two years in a dispute over how to handle challenges ranging from state budget cuts to the ascendency of online learning. An outcry by students, faculty, alumni and even the state’s governor led the board to bring back Sullivan just two weeks later.
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