Wanted: chief executive to oversee a multibillion-dollar enterprise that employs thousands, educates tens of thousands, pushes cutting-edge research and medical care, and fields national-caliber sports teams that are often a headline or two away from controversy.
Must be skilled at fundraising and political tightrope walking and have an appreciation for funny-looking mascots. Working 24/7 is expected; ability to walk on water is a plus.
"The joke is frequently told in these searches that you're looking for God on a good day," said Tom Poole, vice president of administration at Penn State and executive secretary of the university's search for a new president.
At Penn State, Rodney Erickson will leave in a year, triggering a search for a successor who, on top of the regular responsibilities of running such a big university, must also deal with the ongoing aftermath of the sex abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Erickson took over in 2011 after former university President Graham Spanier was forced out.
In Ann Arbor, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman announced in April that she would step down in July 2014.
Ohio State President Gordon Gee retires Monday after his second stint as OSU president for a total of 15 years in Columbus. He announced his retirement last month just days after The Associated Press first reported on remarks he'd made months earlier jabbing Roman Catholics and Notre Dame and demeaning the academic integrity of Southeastern Conference schools.
The Ohio State provost has been tapped as interim president. Details of a search for Gee's replacement haven't been announced.
Any of the responsibilities of a modern research university president would be enough for one person — whether it's building strong academic programs for undergraduates or running a university hospital system. The combined duties can seem staggering.
Penn State, with a $4.3 billion annual budget, has a total of about 85,000 students, including undergrad, graduate and professionals, spread over 24 campuses, including its online school, World Campus.
The University of Michigan Health System alone has more than 26,000 faculty and staff, 120 clinics and offices throughout Michigan and northern Ohio, and $490 million in research funding.
Ohio State, with a $5.2 billion budget and more than 63,000 students, has 168 undergraduate majors, 93 doctoral programs and seven professional programs, including the medical, law and pharmacy schools. It also has nearly 500,000 alumni worldwide, many of them with strong opinions.
When considering candidates, it helps to brainstorm about the skills a new leader should bring to the job, even if the results seem far-fetched at times, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.
"Talking about what in the ideal world the next president could be and do, you get a long list that you think amounts to 'walks on water,'" said Broad, former president of the University of North Carolina.
"But it's a process that helps you formulate in your mind, among all these important potentials, which ones are absolutely essential," she said.
Seeking candidates for such demanding jobs is one thing. But who would want the job, given the hours and the stress?
Penn State, for example, is wrapping up a $2 billion fundraising campaign, an effort high on the list of presidential priorities.
Campus meetings start early and athletic events go late. Weekends off are exceedingly rare. Presidents are often required to sit on corporate boards, meaning extra time and travel.
Nevertheless, there's no dearth of candidates for such jobs, largely because "they're wonderful institutions," said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada, including Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
"Highly regarded globally, they have, as you know, international student bodies, international faculties, their influence extends throughout the world, and so it's no wonder that you have a lot very talented people who have a desire to head those institutions in spite of the difficulties," Rawlings said.
No wonder, either, given the compensation for such work. Spanier, Gee and Coleman all made the Chronicle of Higher Education's list of the top 10 highest compensated public college leaders. Spanier topped the list, at $2.9 million for the 2011-12 school year before his departure. Gee ranked No. 3 at $1.9 million and Coleman was No. 6 at $900,000.
Coming up with a short list of candidates is usually turned over to executive search firms. Ohio State hired Chicago-based Heidrick & Struggles when it started the search in 2006 that ended with Gee. Penn State hired executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, with offices in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to look for Erickson's replacement.
In Michigan, the search will be made easier — at least for the university — by the state's Sunshine laws, which shield the names of applicants for the University of Michigan job from the public. Penn State is also confident it can shield candidate names under Pennsylvania law.
"You're simply going to have fewer candidates, certainly fewer sitting president candidates, if the search is a public search," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the former Michigan State University president. "That isn't what campuses would prefer to do, but it is a problem if you don't do it that way."
Then there's the matter of cleaning up messes. At Penn State, Erickson was criticized in the wake of the Sandusky scandal for handling talks with the NCAA over the severe sanctions on the football program, which included scholarship reductions, a four-year bowl ban and a $60 million fine.
At Ohio State, Gee left under the shadow of a warning from trustees in March that any more offensive comments — he referred to "those damn Catholics" at a December meeting of the university's Athletic Council — could lead to his dismissal.
Concerns about walking into such situations are outweighed by the lure of these top jobs, Rawlings said.
"When you've had some difficulties, that really gives the new person a chance to start afresh with her or his own agenda," Rawlings said. "And that's often seen by candidates as an opportunity."
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