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Lawrence H. Summers, former Treasury secretary and former director of the White House’s National Economic Council, resigned as president of Harvard University after a no-confidence vote from the school’s faculty. Mr. Summers had come under fire for, among other things, suggesting that women were underrepresented in the fields of science and engineering because of a “different availability of aptitude at the high end” compared to men.

Those incidents underscore the intense microscope college presidents find themselves under. Recently, the scrutiny has most often been tied to the cost of higher education, with parents, the media and political figures pointing the finger at the heads of institutions for failing to keep tuition prices under control.

“It’s human nature to want someone to blame. When it comes to the issue of college affordability and rising tuition, a lot of the attention goes to the person in the presidency,” said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Cash is king

The concern over prices has led presidents to double down on fundraising, often crisscrossing the country to meet with wealthy donors and alumni. The practice has always been a part of private institutions, which don’t rely on state funds as much to make ends meet.

But as states have slashed higher-education spending, public colleges have had to look elsewhere for contributions.

“In the public sector, we didn’t really feel the need” to fundraise, said Javier Cevallos, president of Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University. “That’s changed quite a bit.”

While the laserlike focus on finances can, for some presidents, make the campus office feel more like the corporate boardroom, there are distinct differences between running a business and overseeing a university, Ms. Cormier said.

Tenured professors want their voices to be heard, as do board members, donors, alumni, coaches and other prominent figures on and off campus, she said.

“You have to understand that a university is not a corporate model,” Ms. Cormier said. “You can’t simply dictate to people. You can do it if you’re Bill Gates, but you can’t do it at a university.”