Seeking candidates for such demanding jobs is one thing. But who would want the job, given the hours and the stress?
Penn State, for example, is wrapping up a $2 billion fundraising campaign, an effort high on the list of presidential priorities.
Campus meetings start early and athletic events go late. Weekends off are exceedingly rare. Presidents are often required to sit on corporate boards, meaning extra time and travel.
Nevertheless, there's no dearth of candidates for such jobs, largely because "they're wonderful institutions," said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada, including Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
"Highly regarded globally, they have, as you know, international student bodies, international faculties, their influence extends throughout the world, and so it's no wonder that you have a lot very talented people who have a desire to head those institutions in spite of the difficulties," Rawlings said.
No wonder, either, given the compensation for such work. Spanier, Gee and Coleman all made the Chronicle of Higher Education's list of the top 10 highest compensated public college leaders. Spanier topped the list, at $2.9 million for the 2011-12 school year before his departure. Gee ranked No. 3 at $1.9 million and Coleman was No. 6 at $900,000.
Coming up with a short list of candidates is usually turned over to executive search firms. Ohio State hired Chicago-based Heidrick & Struggles when it started the search in 2006 that ended with Gee. Penn State hired executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, with offices in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to look for Erickson's replacement.
In Michigan, the search will be made easier - at least for the university - by the state's Sunshine laws, which shield the names of applicants for the University of Michigan job from the public. Penn State is also confident it can shield candidate names under Pennsylvania law.
"You're simply going to have fewer candidates, certainly fewer sitting president candidates, if the search is a public search," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the former Michigan State University president. "That isn't what campuses would prefer to do, but it is a problem if you don't do it that way."
Then there's the matter of cleaning up messes. At Penn State, Erickson was criticized in the wake of the Sandusky scandal for handling talks with the NCAA over the severe sanctions on the football program, which included scholarship reductions, a four-year bowl ban and a $60 million fine.
At Ohio State, Gee left under the shadow of a warning from trustees in March that any more offensive comments - he referred to "those damn Catholics" at a December meeting of the university's Athletic Council - could lead to his dismissal.
Concerns about walking into such situations are outweighed by the lure of these top jobs, Rawlings said.
"When you've had some difficulties, that really gives the new person a chance to start afresh with her or his own agenda," Rawlings said. "And that's often seen by candidates as an opportunity."