The tumult at the University of Virginia -- with the sudden ouster of President Teresa Sullivan on June 10, and the widespread anticipation that she will be reinstated on Tuesday -- reflects a low-grade panic now spreading through much of public higher education.
"Is it possible to be a successful president of a public university?" mused Mark G. Yudof, the president of the University of California. "I'm not willing to say these jobs are impossible, but these are very difficult times. You want to be more efficient, but you don't want to make changes so fast that you endanger academic values and traditions and alienate the faculty. But you can't go too slow, or you alienate the board and the legislature. It's a volatile mix."
Across the nation, it has been a rocky year for public university leaders: Richard W. Lariviere, the president of the University of Oregon, was fired in November, despite strong faculty support, after pushing aggressively for more independence from the state. Amid similar strains -- but voluntarily -- Carolyn Martin left her chancellor post at the University of Wisconsin to become president of the far smaller Amherst College. At the University of Illinois, a faculty mutiny helped spur President Michael Hogan's resignation after less than two years on the job. And at the University of Texas this spring, there were rumblings that President Bill Powers was in danger after a clash with the board and the governor over his request for a tuition increase.
"Each situation is a little different, but the trend is apparent," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "The staggering reduction in financial support from the state puts a lot of pressure on campus. There's increasing politicization of governance. And there are rising expectations that universities will transform themselves very quickly, if not overnight. Somehow, they're supposed to achieve dramatic improvement in learning productivity and at the same time reduce costs by using educational technology."
M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and a past president of Michigan State University, says the job has gotten harder since his tenure there.
"Stressful times are hard times for C.E.O.'s and for boards," he said. "And things are changing faster than they used to."
Rapid change is a particularly jarring concept at the University of Virginia, an institution steeped in tradition, where the "Good Ole Song" is the de facto anthem, and campus is referred to as Grounds.
The litany around the University of Virginia is, " 'This is the way we always did it,' " said Carl W. Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, who attended law school at Virginia. "It's still Mr. Jefferson's university."
The sudden decision by the Board of Visitors at the university to force out the president was especially surprising in that there was no charge of misbehavior, no long-simmering disagreement between the president and the board, and -- even now -- no clear explanation of why Helen E. Dragas, the rector, decided to move so fast.
On Friday, Ms. Dragas released a message purporting to offer "a fuller explanation" of the board's move, a "more specific outline of the serious strategic challenges that alarmed us about the direction of the University."
But the 10-point outline she offered -- listing state and federal financing challenges, the changing role of technology, a rapidly changing health care environment, prioritization of scarce resources, faculty workload and the quality of the student experience, faculty compensation, research financing and the like -- was almost generic, and would have applied to nearly every public university in the nation.
In the end, it seems, the fundamental disagreement at the University of Virginia concerned the approach to change that the president should take -- either incremental, with buy-in from each of the constituencies, or more radical, imposed from the top.
Ms. Dragas has displayed a sense of urgency about pushing the university to find new revenue sources.
She has been especially concerned about pushing ahead in online learning, to keep up with Stanford, M.I.T. and other universities that have, just in the last year, begun to offer "massive open online courses," or MOOCs, free to anyone with an Internet connection, carving out new territory in an area that most universities are just beginning to explore.
Ms. Dragas sent her board a newspaper editorial on the issue, in an e-mail headed "why we can't afford to wait." And in a June 10 statement about Dr. Sullivan's ouster, Ms. Dragas said that the world "is simply moving too fast" for the University of Virginia to maintain its position "under a model of incremental marginal change."
While many of the new MOOCs are enrolling more than 100,000 students, most, so far, have been from overseas -- so that, at least for the time being, the real competition is with foreign universities, not American ones.
Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the new online courses has jolted every leading university into thinking about how online learning may transform higher education: Will there be much demand for each university to develop its own courses, when a state-of-the-art version from a prestigious university is available online? Will employers accept a set of certificates from online courses as a traditional diploma? Will families pay ever-higher tuition if a free online alternative exists? Does it make sense for universities to invest in brick-and-mortar branch campuses, in the United States or abroad, when they can so easily take courses to students everywhere via the Internet?
Dr. Sullivan said that online education was no panacea -- and indeed, was "surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential and unless carefully managed can undermine the quality of instruction."
And while she agreed that she is, indeed, an incrementalist, she stressed that that did not mean she lacked a strategic plan.
"Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university," she said. "Sustained change with buy-in does work."
Many public university presidents, past and present, said that those on the boards of the leading universities -- typically business executives without much experience in academia -- do not always understand the complexities of leading a large research university, and the degree to which a president can succeed only by persuading.
"Everybody thinks university presidents are hierarchical and top-down," said Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, and a former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and secretary of health and human services. "But we are not corporate chieftains, and we cannot rule from the sky. We are more like tugboat captains, trying to get our ships aligned and pulling them in the right direction."
The great research universities, she said, have achieved their dominant position in the world through shared faculty governance, and leaving faculty both academic and research freedom.
"It was a lot easier to run a cabinet department than the University of Wisconsin," Ms. Shalala said. "There are a lot of different constituencies at a university, and the president cannot be successful without buy-in from all of them."
Correction: June 26, 2012, Tuesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the position previously held by Carolyn Martin and Donna E. Shalala at the University of Wisconsin. They each served as chancellor, not as president.education
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.