By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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