Howard University President James E. Cheek has a dream.

As he explained it to an unusual gathering of 100 business-minded Washingtonians Friday night, the diverse educational complex he has headed for 12 years must "challenge this nation as no other predominantly black institution has done in history."

The District university's "reach must exceed its grasp," he added, to correct its status over more than a century as a national resource that is a "victim of neglect and deprivation."

What Howard needs to eradicate its shortcomings is cash, and in the mid-1970s Cheek launched the first phase of a major fund-raising effort by seeking $100 million from the private sector within five to seven years. To date, business and industry have given $47 million.

As helpful as those resources are, they aren't enough to move Howard up in some of the standard measurements of Big League university excellence -- library volume per student, faculty salaries per student, scholarship money per student and endowment per student. Of 12 major and similar U.S. universities in terms of scope of educational program and student body, Howard ranks last in nearly every comparison.

So, two of the most successful performers in the history of Washington business have joined with Cheek to help make his dream a reality. Debuting as a team act Friday, J.W. (Bill) Marriott Jr. and Joe L. Allbritton hosted a reception at which they urged business-community colleagues here to share their enthusiasm and corporate largesse.

Marriott and Allbritton are business persons not used to failure in the tasks they assume. Marriott, whose father founded a restaurant business that helped make Washington a growing business center, has made Marriott Corp. a billion-dollar-plus company that is the world's fastest-growing hotel chain. And Texas-transplant Allbritton has taken Washington like no other outsider in memory (excluding professional politicians), first buying and then selling the now-defunct Washington Star before becoming the largest stockholder and board chairman of Riggs National Corp., the area's largest financial institution.

As Marriott noted, many Washingtonians don't recognize the stature that Howard already has gained for itself over 114 years as "the premiere, No. 1 ranking black university anywhere in the world."

And Allbritton, described by Marriott as a "great trader," said Howard commands attention and respect because of its "prominent position . . . in setting the pace for improvement in all of our national well-being . . . We must respond to the maximum extent possible."

Given an opportunity to state its case for support, Howard can hold its own in competition with the nation's best universities, Allbritton added. The reception on Friday was one such opportunity, and Cheek didn't pull any punches in making his appeal.

"We want to find out if this country will respond in the same measure" with which its private sector aids Yale, Harvard, the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley, Cheek stated, adding: "Even if we fail, it is important for us to know just what is the true moral climate of our nation . . . The goal is not unrealistic in terms of the capacity and generosity of the American people."

A "fascinating journey of the mind," he went on, would be to think of where America today would be without Howard University -- which has graduated most of the country's black physicians and dentists, a majority of black lawyers and pharmacists and a large percentage of black engineers, business people, communications specialists and scholars in theology and other disciplines.

Howard alumni and alumnae include former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former Cabinet member Patricia Roberts Harris and singer Roberta Flack.

"I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than succeed in a cause that will fail," Cheek said in a conclusion that forecast success for the money-raising venture.

Specifically, Howard is seeking from the private sector a total of $30 million for endowed chairs and distinguished professorships; $27.5 million for student aid and scholarships; $10 million for sponsored research and development programs; $7.5 million to improve library resources; $15 million for building renovation and construction; and $10 million in unrestricted aid dollars.

As the only large, predominantly black university with a full array of specialized colleges and divisions, Howard today has 1,700 faculty members and 12,000 students from all U.S. states and 100 foreign nations.

The great myth Howard has to overcome in seeking private aid is that the university is amply supported by the federal government.

"Not true," Cheek said emphatically to an audience that included such local business leaders as Potomac Electric Power Co. Chairman W. Reid Thompson, developer Oliver T. Carr Jr., American Security Corp. Chairman Jarvis Moody, NS&T Bank Chairman Joseph Riley and stock broker Julia Walsh.

Allbritton, Thompson and Moody, among others, have joined a 40-member Howard international sponsors council to help raise the needed money from businesses in this country and overseas.

The reception was not of the kind where pledges are announced and a bandwagon rolled out. But the combination of Allbritton and Marriott is bound to add substantial muscle to the Howard push.

Marriott did reveal that his company is working on development of a new hotel and restaurant management program at Howard. "We . . . are anxious to employ career executives from Howard in the future . . . We need good people and we need good black people," Marriott asserted.

Property Auction: A key indicator of the District's future economic health is expected to develop starting tomorrow, when the city government begins its highly publicized program of selling off surplus property. First on the auction block is the old Corcoran School in Georgetown (2 p.m., in the schoolyard on M Street NW, across from the new Four Seasons Hotel).

This 33,066-square-foot site is among nine properties to be sold at public auctions this month, in addition to eight parcels to be sold through sealed bids. More than 40 potential bidders picked up packages for the Georgetown property (zoned for mixed commercial and residential use), including several out-of-town and international companies. The D.C. Office of Surplus Property expects numerous serious bidders for the Corcoran School, with a minimum bid set at $2 million.

Overall, Mayor Marion Barry Jr.'s administration hopes to generate an immediate $9.3 million or more in revenue for the hard-pressed city government. But additional millions of revenues are expected over the years from property, income and sales taxes associated with returning these properties to active use.

A D.C. announcement last week forecast that more than 500 permanent jobs and 900 construction jobs will be created through the sale and future development of the properties. The city also has projected more than 700 new housing units will be built on the varied sites.

On Thursday, the old Georgetown incinerator property will go on the auction block, providing 55,376 square feet of prime waterfront property for residential, office and retail use. Auctions for seven other properties are set for Sept. 28 and Sept. 30 at the District Building.

Full details on all properties and the schedules for receiving bids are available from the Surplus Property Office, at 544-3110 (ask for Garland Hawkins) or 727-3572 (Jean Oliver).

Law Lease: One real estate deal signed last week appears to indicate that some Washington business is not bad.

Developer Ted Lerner, whose current major project is the Washington Square office and retail complex at Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW, revealed that the big law firm of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn has taken about 143,000 square feet, or about 2 1/2 floors, of the new building for occupancy in January 1983.

To house its more than 60 partners and other employes, now working at 1815 H St. NW, Arent Fox signed a total lease commitment of "substantially more" than $100 million, Lerner said. The lease is for 15 years with options for more.

For Washington Square, Arent Fox is the biggest tenant to date. Lerner said he has signed "several other major leases," that construction is on schedule for initial occupancy in November 1982 and that the first marble for the building exterior will be put in place starting early in December.

Women's Wear: Arthur A. Adler's two menswear specialty stores downtown and in Chevy Chase sported a new look last week. Still another Ivy League men's institution is integrating the sexes.

Starting with the fall season, Adler has added a full line of tailored sportswear for women by Southwick -- a line of suits, jackets, skirts and slacks that matches closely the classic menswear Adler has featured. "It's long been recognized that ladies' sportswear, especially in the so-called designer lines, has not been tailored to the same standard of fine menswear," said John Adler, executive vice president.