Someone needs to hang a bunch of "help wanted" signs outside the offices of a half dozen or so local university presidents and chancellors.

Following a spate of vacancies — brought on by illness, change of heart, scandal and retirement — several of the region's top schools find themselves searching for leaders just as higher education struggles through one of the worst economic periods in recent history.

Insiders and search consultants say there's no reason to think this area is suffering more than others in terms of leadership loss. But they also say no one should be surprised to see campus chiefs bowing out — even those relatively new to the job.

In the best of times, these are demanding posts, requiring enormous time commitments. But today's presidents and chancellors also find themselves trying to balance tight budgets, while facing the scrutiny of parents, students, faculty, alumni and politicians.

"You build up a lot of antagonism after a few years. It gets harder and harder to deal with it," said Michael Baer, a search consultant with Washington-based Isaacson, Miller. "It's a much more difficult position than it used to be."

It's difficult to say how many schools nationwide are searching for new presidents. But there are reasons to believe the number is growing.

When the American Council on Education last did its periodic survey of college presidents in 2006, it found that nearly half of them were at least 61 years old — compared with 14 percent in 1986 — suggesting many schools would soon be coping with retirements.

"At the national level, we've been anticipating more turnover than we've seen" in the past, said Peter Eckel, director of the council's Center for Effective Leadership in Washington.

The same conclusion can be drawn from a 2006 survey by the American Association of Community Colleges, which found that nearly a third of campus chiefs planned to retire between 2010 and 2012. That's not surprising to Myrtle Dorsey, the organization's chair and new chancellor at St. Louis Community College.

Dorsey, who's still unpacking boxes following her June arrival, said the days of campus leaders sticking around for 25 or 30 years are waning. "It's just a different time. And the jobs are very different than they were before," she said.

Retirement has certainly claimed its share of presidents in this region, including those at Harris-Stowe State University, the Missouri University of Science and Technology and St. Charles Community College. But that's not the only reason presidents are leaving. The University of Missouri system lost Gary Forsee earlier this year, when he resigned to spend time with his sick wife. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is still looking for a permanent replacement for a chancellor who left in the wake of a 2009 admissions scandal. And Missouri State University's president, James Cofer, lasted just one year before deciding in June to return to teaching.

Perhaps the most jarring departure was that of Forsee, a widely respected president whose business background — as a former chief executive at Sprint Nextel — made him an ideal fit for the state's flagship during this time of economic turmoil. "We lost a leader who could have repositioned the university for the long run," said Warren Erdman, chairman of the UM Board of Curators.

As the system continues its nationwide search for a successor, curators want someone who will continue the work started by Forsee and who is willing to take the job for at least five years. Forsee was hired in late 2007.

"You shoot for something approaching 10 years, but you realize that's probably a little on the long side of the range," Erdman said.

Rare are the schools that are led by the same individual for more than a decade. In Missouri, just 20 of 63 public and private institutions have a president or chancellor with at least 10 years on the job — and two of those are retiring, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

Yet in the eyes of some educators, that's the way it should be. A school, they say, gains value from the new ideas and energy of a new president.

At the end of next month, John Carney will close out his six-year term as chancellor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Carney, 69, stayed a year longer than he planned to and is ready to retire to Boston to spend time with his family.

"A position like this, you shouldn't stay in it for life," Carney said. "Ten years should be the upper limit, even if you are doing a great job."

Others argue that as long as a president has the energy to keep up with the demands of the job, there are advantages to lengthy tenures.

Mark Wrighton is heading into his 17th year as chancellor at Washington University, putting him in a group of long-serving campus chiefs who include St. Louis University President Lawrence Biondi, in his 24th year, and Missouri Baptist's R. Alton Lacey, who is in his 16th year.

With workdays starting before 5 a.m., Wrighton figures he puts in 15 hours a day during the spring and fall semesters, leaving little time for anything but work.

"Sometimes I'll joke with people when they ask what I do for fun in my free time. I say: email."

But at age 62, Wrighton said he still has much to accomplish and has no plans to leave the school anytime soon. "I know it's not a forever position. But I've had good health and I remain very enthusiastic," he said.

Wrighton's steady presence — and the long-term vision it offers — stands in stark contrast to that of a school like Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which has had five chancellors over the past half dozen years.

Rita Cheng, who has been in the post for 13 months, hopes to reverse the short-timer trend. Too much turnover can damage a school, Cheng said. But there are times when it is necessary.

"There are institutions that need to make changes in order to go in a different direction," said Cheng, who is striving to reverse declining enrollment and boost research funding.

With so many presidents departing, it would seem to raise questions about how successful schools can hope to be when looking for replacements. Are there enough strong candidates out there at a time when the job is, put simply, not as fun as it once was?

Search consultants say the increased pressures of the job do seem to be forcing some traditional candidates — top academic officers on campuses, for example — to shy away from presidential openings.

Still, they say that doesn't mean they can't find good people.

"We have to look harder. And we have to look in more places," said Dennis Barden, a Chicago-area search consultant. "But the caliber of candidates continues to be very strong."

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