Sidney Ribeau, president of Howard University, abruptly announced this month that he would retire from his post at the end of the year, despite having signed a contract extension during the summer to keep him as president for two more years.
"Serving as the president of Howard University was the opportunity of a lifetime," Ribeau said in his announcement. "It is one I will always treasure."
The announcement came as a surprise to some, as Ribeau had undertaken an ambitious strategy to revamp the Washington, D.C., university's curriculum and break ground on several new buildings on campus. But the university had also seen its share of trouble under Ribeau, and board members had expressed concerns about the institution's financial health.
As Ribeau's example shows, the role of the university president is a precarious position – and is becoming increasingly so.
Former Norfolk State University President Tony Atwater was fired by the university's board in August.
At a time when funding for higher education is at a tipping point and employment outcomes are less than favorable, many question the value of a higher education and scrutinize the men and women who hold the seats of power at colleges and universities across the country. Even President Obama has weighed in, challenging colleges to train millions more workers while keeping their costs down. States, as well as colleges, he said in his 2012 State of the Union address, are not doing their part.
"So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down," Obama said. "Higher education can't be a luxury – it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford."
Long gone are the days when university leaders could pack their bags at the end of the year, not returning to campus until the convocation of classes in September.
"Once upon a time, institutions were quiet, easygoing," says Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University. "Fundraising used to be a gentlemanly sort of thing in which the president picked up the phone and called some rich member of the board of trustees, and the next thing you knew, you had a new athletic arena."
But the job has changed so much in the last 10 to 20 years that many who assume the positions are unprepared for what lies ahead, says Trachtenberg, who served as president of University of Hartford in Connecticut for 11 years, before taking the reigns at George Washington University for nearly two decades, from 1988 to 2007.
"It has become a very daunting, very challenging job, frequently calling for a skill set that most presidents have not prepared for," Trachtenberg says.
Traditionally, university presidents have come from academia, ascending through the ranks of an institution. They hold advanced degrees that serve as a sort of "union card" that legitimizes them, having excelled early on in their teaching and research careers to command the respect of their colleagues. Their primary role was maintaining the academic standards of the university and maintaining a good relationship with faculty members. And it was a job with perks: average annual salaries of more than $350,000, often a plush residence on campus, and the knowledge that you were one of the communities' prime citizens.
But universities nationwide are having their budgets pinched, creating myriad issues that have fallen into the laps of presidents and are pushing many to leave their posts early. It is not enough just to be a noted academic; today's presidents are now also the chief financial officers, the fundraisers and philanthropists, the advocates, the governmental lobbyists and the "cheerleaders-in-chief" for their institutions. And there is pressure to maintain their college's position in the numerous rankings that come out annually, including those of U.S. News.
Between 2009 and 2010, Trachtenberg says, 50 university and college presidents either resigned, retired early or were fired. And that trend appears to be continuing.