"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.
Former University of Illinois President Michael Hogan, forced out in March after less than two years on the job, wasn't so lucky. In his case, faculty opposition doomed his brief presidency, which came after a 2009 admissions scandal drove out Hogan's predecessor.
At Oregon, Richard Lariviere was fired in December 2011 after defying his bosses' orders not to increase employee pay. His time on campus? Twenty-nine months.
The first female president at Texas A&M, Elsa Moreno, abruptly resigned in 2009 after just 17 months in office. Mike McKinney, the chancellor of the larger Texas A&M system, who some thought helped drive away Moreno, resigned in May 2011, five years after the former chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry took over under a business-driven reform movement.
And in Madison, University of Wisconsin Chancellor Carolyn "Biddy" Martin left in June 2011 after clashing with Gov. Scott Walker. Martin, who spent three years at Wisconsin, stepped down to take the presidency at Amherst College.
The trend isn't a new one. In 2006, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers resigned after a five-year stint following a faculty no-confidence vote and a series of public missteps, including comments about the intellectual aptitude of female scientists that some viewed as sexist.
Molly Corbett Broad, a former University of North Carolina system president who now leads the American Council on Education, said university governing boards "have become much more politicized." She said they're wrapped up in power struggles with campus presidents who can't or won't always mollify the competing interests of board members while also remaining attentive to students, parents, donors, professors and politicians forced to cut public spending on higher education as many states struggle to emerge from the recession.
"A president really cannot succeed in leading unless she has a working majority of those constituencies," she said. "And their interests are not typically aligned."
"Each of these constituencies play different roles in the life of the university, and it's the president's job to keep them reasonably together," she added.
Trachtenberg, now a higher education consultant with Korn/Ferry International, said the job of university leader remains an attractive one, despite the higher stakes and declining job security. The average public university president earned $421,395 in salary and other compensation in 2010-11, according to an annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. And some, such as Ohio State University's Gordon Gee, who brought home $1.992 million in total compensation last year, earn significantly more.
But the quality of applicants, on the whole, is not as good these days as even a few years ago, Trachtenberg said.
"Is it harder to find people who want the jobs? No," Trachtenberg said. "Is it harder to find people who deserve to get the jobs? Yes."
Trachtenberg, whose forthcoming book examines failed university presidencies, compares the job of running a campus to the work of hapless Russian sleigh drivers trying to keep the wolves at bay while crossing Siberia.
"The job of a university president is like driving a troika across a snowy field being chased by wolves, and you have to keep a hamper of lamb chops," he said. "You threw lamb chops off behind you, and the wolves stopped to eat and you got ahead. When they started pursuing again, you threw more lamb chops.
"When your hamper is out of lamb chops, when the resources are diminished, you have less ability to slow down all the stakeholders, all the constituents all the wolves that are running after you."