There is a lot at stake in Tuesday night’s election of an AMPAS topper. The president was often just an honorary position in decades past, but now there are key questions about nuts-and-bolts issues like electronic voting, the museum and membership diversity — as well as Big Picture questions about the direction of the organization itself.

The list of candidates won’t be finalized until balloting begins at the Acad’s Board of Governors meeting, and the field is both narrow and wide open, the result of a process that features no public campaigning, cards held tight to the vest and — as was the case with outgoing prexy Tom Sherak three years ago — the distinct possibility of an 11th-hour entrant from the board membership.

“I think any of the people that could be nominated or elevated could do a fine job,” Sherak told Variety. “The people who belong to that board really care.”

Rob Friedman, Gale Anne Hurd, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Kathleen Kennedy and Hawk Koch have emerged as contenders. But it’s easier to find people who are electable but seem content to stay in their governor’s position, as is believed to be the case with Annette Bening, Tom Hanks and Phil Alden Robinson.Professional commitments often limit the time one can devote to the AMPAS presidency, and the unpaid position itself has managed to become more challenging in recent years.

“What’s weird is the position has turned into more of a full-time job than it ever had been before,” one insider said. “It’s no wonder that a lot of those guys don’t want to be president. It’s an august enough position to be governor.”

Sherak said: “I was a board member for six years before I got involved as president, and you realize that there’s so much going on here. Sometimes, as an outsider, you think that it’s one night. … There’s a learning process as president. There really is.”

At the same time, the position does not bring with it overwhelming power. “The president is a governor who is equal to every one of the other 42 governors, (but) he also has a mallet,” Sherak said. “That’s it.”

And while AMPAS is not exactly boiling over with the polarization found in, say, the U.S. presidential campaign, there is contentiousness over the direction of the Academy — often with the theme of “Change: Too much or not enough?” — that the next president will have to navigate. That relates to issues as far-ranging as the proper number of annual nominees for best picture, the future of the org’s numerous public programs and the diversity of the membership.

“The board isn’t chaotic — it’s a very meaningful, well-thought-out kind of organization,” Sherak said. “It doesn’t mean that everybody agrees. That doesn’t happen anywhere.”

Sherak believes that inherent conflict is natural, even honorable, for an Academy that strives to serve big fish and little fish.

“The organization is not a small organization,” he said. “It truly, in my mind, sits above any other organization in our field. It deals with everyone. It tries to keep a playing field of the business level. It’s not always easy. Decisions are sometimes made, and people say, ‘What are you doing?’ But it’s done so that the little guy has as much say as the big guy.

“It’s hard to make sure when you make a decision or give a statement, you have to be above the fray. Things that you set in motion have to be set in motion for everybody that’s a part of the organization.”

Further complicating the AMPAS presidential selection is the Academy’s nine-year term limit for its governors — the same policy that is driving Sherak’s exit. Koch, for example, has one year left as a governor before he would have to take a hiatus, so it may make more sense for him to wait until that break is over before assenting to a presidential bid. (He would also potentially have to curtail his term as co-prexy of the Producers Guild, set to run through 2014.)

Nevertheless, come the meeting, there’s no doubt that the post of Academy prexy will hold sufficient pull for a select group of people to assent to nomination and feel dejection or elation upon the result.

Certainly, as his own tenure came to a close, Sherak reflected upon the job as one to cherish.

“I was able to give back to this organization, and that’s what’s important,” he said. “You do this because it’s the honor of honors.”