The appointment of Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairman Manuel H. Johnson to head a new center at George Mason University reflects the increasingly high-powered faculty at the young school south of Fairfax.

Johnson, who taught economics at George Mason from 1977 until 1981, will return to become the first director of the newly established Center for Global Market Studies, which he will help organize during the 1990-91 academic year, the school announced yesterday.

During his absence, Johnson has risen to an influential role in the finance world, first as a high-ranking official in the Reagan administration Treasury Department and then in 1986 with his appointment to the Fed board.

"We try to break down the margin between town and gown, and when you have someone of this stature move back it gives our students experience they couldn't get anywhere else," said George Mason President George W. Johnson.

While it has not attained the eminence of a Georgetown or George Washington universities, the 18-year-old George Mason has attracted national attention through a combination of big-name faculty recruitment and risk-taking curricular innovations.

Among other luminaries lured to temporary or permanent positions have been Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan, federal appeals Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, authors Vassily Aksyonov and Carlos Fuentes, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Roger Wilkins, former Office of Management and Budget director James Miller and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson.

This spring, the university's 11-year-old law school -- led by controversial and pioneering Dean Henry G. Manne -- was named the top "up-and-coming" legal program in the nation by U.S. News & World Report magazine. Within days, the law school hired both failed Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork and House general counsel Steven R. Ross to teach part time.

Manuel Johnson will take on the task of building a center studying international finance. He will be paid $120,000 a year, partly through private funds.

The center represents the latest move by George Mason to "globalize" its program. The center is to operate in tandem with a newly created International Institute.