William H. Graham is completing his first year as chairman of Catholic University's drama department, founded 40 years ago by his immediate predecessor, Father Gibert V. Hartke.

It's a busy time, winding up one year, planning the next.A five-week "Acting Conservatory" begins on campus this week, and on May 30, Olney Theater, the department's professional offshoot, begins its summer season.

It's also the time when Graham warns past and future students that CU's drama department is not fundamentally concerned with how its students are going to earn their livings. "It's not a fashionable idea," Graham regrets, "perhaps it doesn't encourage students, but I believe that utilitarianism is threatening the most vital, lasting approach to the arts."

From a recent stack of mail, Graham pulls out what he calls "one more brochure about a school devoted only to the teaching of 'drama'."

"On what is this based?" he asks. "What are the qualifications for the student to enter? It is expected that after so many weeks, months or years a student will become a successful actor from this limited course?"

"I feel that at this time of year, especially," Graham continues, "the wrong questions are asked of schools about students, questions like: 'How will this help you make a living?' What should be asked is something else: 'Is this the best way for you to develop your talent?'

"To probe for what it means to be a living human being is not a profitable idea, economically speaking. It can't be measured in dollars."

A member of the staff since his graduate days, Graham took over his new post last year with the conviction that something more than more craft-training is needed for in-a-hurry youth.

"There was," he remembers, "an assembly here a while back of the various arts departments, with Leonard Bernstein as the guest speaker. One of the questions from the audience to Bernstein inspired an unequivocal response from him. He was asked: 'Would you recommend a conservatory or theater school for a young artist or a liberal arts education?'

"Bernstein's answer was that he would recommend a liberal arts education, 'No doubt about it,' he said."

With applications in for next year, and this month's graduates concerned with earning livings from what they have learned, Graham observes that spring can be a trying time for educators, who are leaned on for promises they cannot make.

Nor does Graham forget his own youthful choices. Now graying and past his mid-40s, Graham, as a youth, was strikingly attractive - tall, dark and handsome, the type who, given luck, might have made a strong acting career.

"But," he confesses, "there were other things in me, too. I realized how vital a part luck plays in such matters as casting and the right plays at the right time. Above all, I knew I wanted to have a strong family life, to be a person myself, not just to be a nerve-wracked actor wondering where his next job would come from."

Looking back, this turns out to have been true wisdom. Graham and his wife, Mary, live in Silver Spring with their seven children, and recently one of them, Bill Jr., revealed that there must be good deal of humor in the Graham home life. His performance as the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" was wickedly funny.

With a family of that size to consider, Graham fully understands the importance of earning a living. Like others on the CU staff he has fitted in outside jobs, TV and radio commercials, coaching media and government personalities for public appearances, occasional narrator work for National Symphony programs. On the side he also is associate director of the Word of God Institute, a church program for the renewal of scriptural preaching. In summer he serves as vice president of Olney Summer Theater and also conducts special courses.

So that snide aphorism, "those who can't do, teach" doesn't apply to Graham. He's shown he can do but, as he puts it, "a wider, deeper education than just drama courses have made it possible.

"Nothing this current passion for quick, superficial training leads me to think," he continues, "that we have shaped our educational systems toward passing on information in order to pass tests. Many have insisted that our teachers inform without forming.

"In the theater," he explains, "it is of great value to the artist to recognize the similarities and differences among various periods of theater history.

"Consider fifth-century Athens, the age of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The heritage and the religious, political and socio-economic elements of that age combine to suggest that the Athenians had a prevailing concept of man as a rational being responsible for the good or evil he does.

"It was not a perfect society but there seems to have been an ideal of the dignity and potential of the individual person. And there seems to have been a kind of awe about being human. In one of Sophocles' plays, the Chorus says: 'Numberless are the world's wonders but noen of them more wonderful than man.'

"Consider Elizabethan England, the age of Shakespeare. The heritage and the religious, political and socio-economic elements of that age combine to as a rational, moral being. The Elizabethans also had a sense of awe and excitement about life.

"In our time of so much swift change, we have a heritage of mixed cultural and religious traditions but a common political philosophy - freedom of the individual - and a common economic concept - freedom of enterprise.

"But other forces have shaped our world. Marx, Darwin and Freud contributed to a change in our concepts of ourselves, our self-image. Do we see oursleves as primarily rational? Are we, do we, regard ourselves as morally responsible for the goos or evil we do?

"It seems to me," he concludes, hurrying off to a speech class, "that no one working in theater can afford to be ingnorant of such perspectives and contrasts. There is no visible cash I can promise for knowing such history of the human mind, but I am convinced that a satisfying career cannot be built without such awareness, without asking such questions.

"Certainly living is enriched by this knowledge, and isn't life more important that theater, even theater?"