IS MY ARMOR STRAIGHT? A Year in the Life of a University President. By Richard Berendzen. Adler & Adler. 351 pp. $17.95.

IS MY ARMOR STRAIGHT?, a memoir of a year in the life of a university president by Richard Berendzen of the American University, moves me to urge in the most forceful terms that a recent suggestion of my boss, Harper's editor Lewis H. Lapham, be implemented immediately if not sooner. To wit: that cultural institutions be subsidized into moderate states of affluence, enabling their administrators to think of something other than bucks.

For the better part of a twelvemonth, Dr. Berendzen, an intelligent and engaging man if no prose stylist, appears to have thought of little else, and the results were at once exhausting and peculiar, if ultimately successful. In pursuit of his goals -- in general, continued solvency for his institution, and in particular a new sports and convocation center -- he allowed himself to appear on one chuckleheaded talk show after another. Courting donors, he traversed the length and breadth of the land, lecturing to rich people on astronomy, his specialty. With other rich people, he broke bread and made conversation, a term I use advisedly; in my experience -- and I have known a great many wealthy men and women -- conversation with the rich is freqently an exercise closely akin to fabricating a pair of shoes out of butter. And like beggars the world over, Berendzen secretly raged against the stinginess of the fat.

A scholar, he had little time for scholarship. A devoted family man, he was frequently absent from home. An administrator, he was continually overtaken by events. Perhaps worst, he appears to have fallen into the grip of a subtle malady known as Will Rogers' Disease. A person in Berendzen's position literally cannot afford to meet a man he doesn't like, if that man has a long purse or access to power. One of the men he courts is the fabulously wealthy Saudi businessman Adnan Kashoggi. At the book's supposedly triumphant end, Khashoggi comes through, but not before Berendzen has nearly wept salt tears over the seeming parsimony of his gift. The new center will be built. It will be named for Adnan Khashoggi.

This is not a book about a university and the state of national education, valiantly though it struggles in that direction. It is, instead, a book about money, the lack of it, and the getting. And like so many books about money, it is also about a decent man selling off small pieces of his soul. It is sadder and wiser, I suspect, than its author ever knew -- for he was the blameless president of an American university, and he was only doing his job.