They are billion-dollar-and-up enterprises, each tasked with roles that range from fostering top research and growing the economy to bettering the lives of the most vulnerable of those living beyond their campus boundaries.
When a leadership change occurs at the top of just one major research university, the stakes are huge.
But in recent weeks, no less than three -- the University of Pittsburgh, West Virginia University and now Penn State University -- have entered into transitions that have enormous implications, not only for their home communities and for their regions, but for their states, too.
It is part of a larger shift in higher education leadership in Pennsylvania and beyond that hasn't been seen in many years, some experts say. Along with Pitt, WVU and Penn State, other campus leaders on the job for less than eight months include Carnegie Mellon University's new president and the chancellor of the State System of Higher Education, which oversees Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities including California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania.
On Monday, Penn State's board is expected to present Eric J. Barron, president of Florida State University, as its pick to succeed President Rodney Erickson, who is retiring at the end of June.
Pitt's board just over a week ago named Patrick D. Gallagher, a top U.S. Commerce Department official, to succeed Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who is stepping down Aug. 1.
And at WVU, the search for a permanent successor to Jim Clements is under way, and as it continues, the presidency will be occupied by E. Gordon Gee, who himself stepped down from Ohio State University's presidency last year.
Of late, attention has focused on who is being considered for those leadership jobs and what their qualifications are, as well as what input the public should have in helping trustee boards at those public universities vet top contenders.
But in the coming months, those questions will yield to one just as important: How deftly can each new leader work not only inside their schools but with their presidential peers and outside institutions such as legislatures and foundations?
Odds are, the new leaders will find a way to collaborate well, in part because their institutions depend on it, said C. Peter Magrath, now retired, whose 23 years as a university chief executive included the interim presidency of WVU.
All three universities have medical schools and two -- Penn State and WVU -- are their state's land-grant institutions. But even their success depends in part on tapping expertise and resources on campuses other than their own.
"Not any institution, no matter how great and powerful it is, can do it all and they don't need to do it all," Mr. Magrath said. "If you have good leaders who are smart, they will figure that out pretty quickly. They will figure out how to work together."
Mr. Magrath's career placed him in touch with university chiefs around the nation. He too has noticed a changing of the guard that is occurring in part because campus presidents, whose average age is 61, are reaching retirement age in greater numbers.
"Three to four years ago, I would have known personally just about everyone who was the head of a major public university,'' he said. "If I look around now, I know maybe 20 to 25 percent."
Among newly arriving presidents, experience suggests they will have an advantage if they begin the job already connected in some way to the institution, said Jan Greenwood, partner and co-owner of Greenwood/Asher and Associates Inc., a Florida firm involved in educational and nonprofit executive searches.
In her experience, those candidates "usually fare better than if there is no preceding relationship," she said.
That could offer insight into at least one reason why those recently named leaders had an edge.
Mr. Gallagher, Pitt's chancellor-elect, completed a doctoral degree in physics at Pitt in 1991 and has family ties to the region. At WVU, Mr. Gee's arrival in January brought him, in effect, full circle back to the university that gave him his first shot at a presidency decades ago.
If Penn State's board names Mr. Barron as its 18th president Monday, it will have chosen someone who already has spent a sizable part of his career within the university in posts including dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
Carnegie Mellon's President Subra Suresh as well as Mr. Gallagher are scientists with experience in the federal government. They already were acquainted with each other from their prior roles -- Mr. Suresh as director of the National Science Foundation and Mr. Gallagher as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology within Commerce.
Mr. Barron is also a scientist with federal government experience.
Penn State, Pitt and WVU have student enrollments respectively of 98,000, 35,000 and 33,000. Their operating budgets combined are more than $7 billion, and they have tens of thousands of employees engaged in pursuits from food safety and health advocacy to legal representation for the disadvantaged.
The campuses that support those activities will be breaking in new leadership at a time when public support both in direct government aid and in scientific funding is especially stretched.
And those leaders will cut their teeth in an era of deepening distrust about the way educational institutions use their clout and manage their resources.
That distrust no doubt exacerbated searing public reaction to the child sex assault scandal that rocked Penn State starting in November 2011 with former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's arrest and subsequent conviction. The fallout toppled the campus leadership, including Mr. Erickson's predecessor, Graham Spanier, who resigned by mutual agreement amid public anger over the university's handling of the matter.
He and two subordinates later were charged criminally in an alleged cover-up of Mr. Sandusky's crimes. They maintain their innocence.
Even with such tumult, Mr. Magrath said large research universities -- even those that lose leaders to scandals -- are resilient, supported by powerful groups of alumni and others. That inevitably helps with a transition in the president's office.
And in the case of Pitt, WVU and Penn State, the tenures of the new leaders will begin close enough so no one campus leader will likely be so established as to dwarf the others in stature.
"That's probably a good thing, because they start out on equal footing," he said. "No matter what public face they put on it, they all have self-doubt. They all do."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.