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06/25/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

College Presidents' Job Security In Danger As Officials Slash Budgets, Demand Reforms

NEW YORK -- It’s a rough time to be running a public university.

Teresa Sullivan's sudden removal as president of the University of Virginia, and the controversy around it, has grabbed national attention, yet it is hardly an isolated incident.

Other large public universities where presidents have stepped down or been forced out recently include the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Oregon, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University, California University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois, to name a few.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said the UVA mess was only "Exhibit A" of the troubled state of public higher education and the potential harm being done to the trust in these institutions. University presidents and administrators once held on to their positions at public colleges for decades at a time, but now it's becoming common to leave after a few years. “We are not in a normal time [for public colleges],” Broad told The Huffington Post.

“Public universities are among the most complicated organizational structures anywhere,” Broad said. Presidents have to deal with many constituencies -- a governing board, the faculty, state and local governments, the feds, alums, boosters and students -- and according to Broad, they all "own a piece of the rock."

Giving has been down among alumni and boosters in recent years, while states have consistently cut funding for higher education. In turn, students are being saddled with skyrocketing tuition costs.

"It's hard for me to believe that institutions with such a tremendous reputation could bungle an announcement so badly,” said John Seigenthaler, CEO of Seigenthaler PR in New York, which advises higher education institutions on dealing with crises. He added that when things arrive like they have at UVA, “they are potentially doing tremendous damage to the fundraising.”

Donors and alumni were certainly outraged when University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere was forced out by the State Board of Higher Education in 2011. A similar situation unfolded when John V. Lombardi was fired from his job as president of the Louisiana State University system in April, a move some believe was orchestrated by Gov. Bobby Jindal after the two continually clashed over higher education policy.

Despite several being forced out of their positions, university leaders are choosing to leave their posts as well.

Last June, Carolyn "Biddy" Martin abruptly announced she was leaving her post as University of Wisconsin-Madison's chancellor to become president of Amherst College. This happened shortly after the failure of a controversial proposal to give the UW Madison campus more autonomy. Jan Greenwood, a presidential search consultant, noted at the time it was both a "banner year" for presidential searches at public universities while also having "severe challenges because of compensation issues."

In May, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau surprised many when he announced he would be leaving the highly-ranked university. That came shortly after reports began to be released chastising his administration for their handling of the Occupy Cal protests on campus in November.

The University of California was the center of the most dramatic student protests in the country against tuition hikes for the past four years, in a state with arguably the most challenging budgetary deficit in the nation. UC has also seen an uproar from faculty over compensation, putting them in a spot where they are weighing tuition hikes against salary freezes.

Thus sums up why it's been so difficult for heads of public colleges lately -- it's hard to please everyone.

Presidents have been criticized in the past, but now in a time of financial strain and in an environment calling for reform, they're increasingly becoming the center of protest and disdain.

"The men and women in these jobs seem to have a target on their backs," wrote Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished professor of global leadership, history, and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin. "University leaders are an endangered species because they are wedged between opposing and powerful pressures that are undermining public universities."

Suri argues they are stuck between state lawmakers who "cut funding while requiring far-reaching reforms," and faculty who view the reforms as attacks on their teaching.

Daniel Luzer, web editor of the Washington Monthly, notes this appears to be a structural problem, not an isolated one, and he expects it will continue as long as states keep slashing education budgets.

"Universities are going to continue to have leadership problems until they come up with new and dedicated funding streams (and consistent budget expectations),” Luzer said. “No one now seems to think it’s the time for lavish funding for state universities, but dependable basic funding would be a good way to ensure effective leadership."

Research shows that these funding reductions are falling on people who don't know how to handle "financial tsunamis." Rick Ginsberg, dean of Kansas University’s School of Education, and Karen Multon, chairwoman and professor of research and psychology in education at KU, found state budget cuts created a great deal of stress on administrators and deans at public universities because they aren't trained to deal with it.

"What's crystal clear is nobody’s prepared for dealing with this," Ginsberg said.

Broad said the boards –- who make the final call on critical issues like tuition increases –- have tough jobs as well, but they “owe their loyalty to the president” of the universities and should be working to protect them.

"At the end of the day it is the president of the university who needs to sort out all of those priorities and chart the best course for the future of the institution," Broad said.

But with all of these pressures and challenges from governing boards, that will prove to be a difficult task.

"It just simply isn't feasible," Broad said.

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