Among the ivied halls of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Jonsson Engineering Center stands out as a sleek example of modern design.

Within the imposing building is an even more significant hallmark of the modern age of engineering: an area crammed with sophisticated equipment on which students can electronically design and model--with uncanny clarity and speed--all manner of objects. A full-color display on one cathode-ray tube of a computer-generated design for a robotics arm is virtually indistinguishable from a photograph of the real thing.

And this advanced computer-design facility--probably unmatched at any other university and with few counterparts in industry--represents another sign of the times. For it is funded in large measure by 33 corporate entities that receive the fruits of research done here in exchange for their donations of money and equipment.

RPI's Center for Interactive Computer Graphics, along with other similarly funded facilities elsewhere on the RPI campus and at major research universities throughout the nation, is a product of a flourishing partnership between universities and corporations that is spawning benefits for both sides.

But it also is raising thorny questions about faculty independence, the dissemination of scientific knowledge and the ownership of discoveries in the laboratory.

Nevertheless, the partnership is seen as a way to promote technological growth at a time when President Reagan is joining many in Congress in urging more intensive education in scientific disciplines to help America keep its edge in technological development. "We must join together--parents, teachers, grassroots groups, organized labor and the business community--to revitalize American education by setting a standard of excellence," Reagan said in his State of the Union message last Tuesday.

The total corporate contribution of $280 million for university research last year paid only 5 percent of the tab for sponsored research in the United States--most of the rest was government funded. Business's share has changed little in the past few years but is expected to double in the next few years as universities try to replace dwindling government research dollars and corporations move to supplement their internal research and development efforts--particularly in the fast-moving biotechnology fields, such as genetic engineering.

Yet even as university presidents are negotiating multimillion-dollar deals with their corporate counterparts, they and faculty committees are trying to outline codes of behavior that will prevent the goals and ideals of academia from being compromised in the process. Critics, interested onlookers and even participants are concerned that the game proceeds even as rules are being drawn.

"I cannot remember any other topic in the area of science and technology policy which has achived such overwhelming attention in the technical and business communities in such a short time." says Herbert I. Fusfeld, director of the center for science and technology policy at New York University. "Ironically, the closest situation might be the concern in the 1950s about the potential impact of massive federal support of university research."

"You have two institutions placed together that have conflictiog goals. That can create problems," says Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who, as chairman of the investigations subcomittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has been a frequent proponent of more government controls on university-corporate relationships.

"I think it's incumbent on the university to constantly explain its greater role in society," says A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University and one of the key speakers at a conference in Philadelphia last month that brought together hundreds of representatives fron top schools and large companies to discuss corporate-funded university research. "There are such vast areas of ignorance on both sides about the nature, structure and philosophy of the other," Giamatti added. Yale recently signed a $1.1 million research contract with Celanese Corp.

No one is saying that corporations are evil. Indeed, educators say their corporate sponsors have shown a great deal of understanding and flexibility--due in large part, perhaps, to cross-pollination of boards of trustees and corporate boards. "I think the bigger corporations, at least, will speak with the same kind of language as we do," says George M. Low, president of RPI. "Corporations don't want to do anything that would in any way hurt the educational process."

Corporate-university relationships take several forms. Those that are arousing the most controversy involve huge, direct-research contracts, especially when they include agreements giving the corporate sponsor exclusive rights to discoveries made in university laboratories under its aegis.

While university administrators acknowledge the corporate need to protect patent and proprietary rights, they fear that exclusivity arrangements may hamper the sharing of scientific knowledge.

RPI's computer-design center all but prevents that problem by limiting the size of corporate donations and spreading the cost among a large number of donors, all of which share the results of the research. (However, the center does do a very small amount of applied, proprietary research under special contracts). "If you get relatively small amounts, you can be more flexible, you don't have to tie down ahead of time what you're going to do with the money," Low says.

RPI's computer graphics center is one model of how conflicts can be minimized in the corporate-university relationship. Another is the Litton Institute for Applied Biotechnology, formed recently by Litton Industries Inc. and the University of Maryland. Robert Smith, the school's vice president for university affairs, says the formation of the institute has included an extensive dialogue between the two partners and the scientists involved, anticipating many problems and creating a mechanism for a stronger partnership.

But many at last month's conference in Philadelphia worried about agreements such as the $23 million, five-year contract between Monsanto Co. and Washington University of St. Louis to fund research on proteins. Officials of some universities privately voiced concerns about that agreement, which places restrictions on the publication of the project's findings. Washington University officials, however, say they are satisfied with the terms of the relationship.

Similarly, there is concern about an agreement between Massachusetts General Hospital--an affiliate of Harvard University--and Hoechst, the West German chemical giant. In 1980 Hoechst pledged more than $50 million over a 10-year period to set up a department of molecular biology at the hospital, with Hoechst receiving exclusive rights to resulting discoveries.

Critics of the Massachusetts General/Hoechst pact not only complain of the exclusivity provision, but also say public funds may indirectly benefit Hoechst, and raise the question of whether U.S. technology should be transferred to a foreign firm.

Another potential problem is that of corporations that bypass universities to contract directly with professors--as consultants, perhaps, or as partners in new companies seeking to commercialize a discovery made in a university laboratory by an independent researcher. University officials worry that faculty members will get so involved in business dealings that they'll neglect their teaching and research roles. A handful of universities, including Yale, has adopted guidelines requiring disclosure by staff members of such involvement.

But there are few rules governing other types of corporate-university relationships. University and professorial associations have begun drawing up guidelines, but many doubt they will be followed. And it is argued strongly that the relationships will have to be shaped on a case-by-case basis.

Still, there is general agreement that as corporate involvement with university research grows, steps must be taken to protect universities from exploitation.

"It's like taking a trip--if you spend 10 minutes looking at a map and making a phone call or two to find out where you're going, the trip goes very smoothly," the University of Maryland's Smith says. "But if you just jump in your car and go, you can make a wrong turn."