Now Hiring: President of Ivy League institution, star power a plus

October 3, 2012: 10:14 AM ET

Several high-profile institutions are looking for new leadership. Tim Geithner, David Petraeus, and Hillary Clinton are among the potential candidates.

By David A. Kaplan, contributor

Now Hiring: President of Ivy League institution. Pays $1 million, give or take some perks. Nice place to live, big office, best seating at faculty club.

FORTUNE -- Sounds like a great gig, right? But the smaller print includes: must be good at fundraising and glad-handing; dealing with self-absorbed, cloistered tenured faculty; fending off meddlesome elected officials; fending off even more meddlesome parents; managing tight budgets in a challenging economy; figuring out how to continue expanding globally; and harnessing new technologies that also threaten the very business model of higher education. Oh and one other thing: you're probably not even the top dog on campus in compensation. Those who invest the college endowment or have a lucrative specialty at the medical school or are a business-school celebrity may earn more.

It may be no wonder, then, that three schools in the Ivy League -- Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale -- are all looking for new presidents these days. And there are other elite institutions -- the University of California-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Smith College -- looking for leadership as well.

At the three Ivies, the vacancies are likely coincidental. Richard Levin, 65, has been president at Yale for almost 20 years. At Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, 66, has run things for more than a decade. And at Dartmouth Jim Yong Kim, 52, left in the spring, after barely three years, to head the World Bank. Levin and Tilghman are leaving (next year) because they've had enough. The ambitious Kim left for greener pastures or at least a change of scenery. But it's not like any of them were wildly disenchanted with the job; as education administrators, it's a great bully pulpit and it represents the capstone to any career in academe.

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And that may be why there are apparently lots of folks interested in the Ivy presidencies. Until finalists are actually interviewed -- or a job offer is made -- search committees and the firms they hire are good at keeping the names of candidates, and prospective candidates, secret. No do would-be aspirants let on publicly. But names get out -- either from those in the know, those floating a name, or those who want the job themselves. Herewith, a scorecard of some of the possible players for the Ivies:

Hillary Clinton, 64: She graduated from Yale law school (after Wellesley) and has said she'll leave her post as secretary of state even if President Obama wins re-election next month. And she surely has star power, as well as management experience at the top of a large organization. But her potential presidential bid in 2016 would be a liability. Yale trustees don't want their university to be a way station the way Columbia was for Dwight Eisenhower before he ran for, and won, the White House in 1952.

Barack Obama, 51: If he loses re-election, he'll still be rather young -- and if he doesn't merely want to write books, give speeches, and sit on boards, the Yale presidency might be attractive. The punditocracy would love the notion of an Obama-Clinton battle to reign in New Haven, however unlikely such a battle would be.

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David Petraeus, 59: Currently director of the CIA, Petraeus, after West Point, got a master's degree in public affairs and a PhD in international relations from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton in the 1980s. Petraeus' name has come up because of an article in the Princeton student paper -- accompanied by a winsome photograph of him playing outfield in jeans and a T-shirt, which then last week was cited by The New York Times. The Princetonian cited sources saying Petraeus was interested. Responding to speculation, Petraeus surprisingly did not attempt to shut the speculation entirely down. He noted in a statement that for the moment he was "living the dream here at CIA," but "I think I've made my respect and admiration for…Princeton University very clear, and I will reiterate that now." Petraeus could have the same problem as Clinton: He's also been mentioned as a presidential candidate for 2016. Plus, generals running universities—see Eisenhower—don't always go well.

Tim Geithner, 51: He's now the Treasury secretary and, according to the rumor mill in Hanover, N.H., the best-known contender to become Dartmouth president. A third-generation legacy, he graduated in 1983. The question about Geithner is whether his unquestionable experience as a Cabinet member in this administration would hurt as much as help him in the eyes of the Dartmouth trustees. Another, less likely, Treasury and Dartmouth alumnus: Hank Paulson, 66, who was Geithner's predecessor, as well as chief executive of Goldman Sachs.

Morty Schapiro, 59: He's the current president of Northwestern and he's proven he doesn't mind packing up the U-Haul. He got a bachelor's degree from Hofstra, a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, then joined the faculty at Williams, left to chair the economics department at USC and later become a VP, then went back to Williams at president in 2000, then left for Northwestern three years ago. Pffew! Any of the Ivy jobs could be considered a bump up. Schapiro has expressed no interest publicly, but that hasn't stopped The Great Mentioner from including him on lists like these.

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Don't bet your Apple (AAPL) stock on any of these names. Famous business or political or military leaders are not the ones normally chosen to become college presidents, especially at elite institutions. Most leaders come from within the ranks of academe: They're already provosts or deans or department chairs. At the end of the day, that's probably how it ought to be. But it's sure fun to speculate.

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