HANNA HOLBORN Gray is the new president of the University of Chicago, an institution one always thinks of as the cradle of Enrico Fermi, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and therefore a sort of Renaissance-type enclave in that vast meadow which lies between Bangor and the Aleutians.

Investigation shows, however - and Gray does not deny - that this university was once the academic home of 130 incumbent presidents of American colleges. Some say 140. Ten more or less would not seem significantly deviant. Furthermore, 42 Nobel laureates either came from the university or taught there, according to a Chicago Sun-Times count.

A friend of mine who was educated there, sort of, spent some of the best years of his life trying to run down a rate breed of dog. It was a quest that absorbed him utterly. This led me to think Chicago instills a respect for thoroughness and the unblinking vision.

Hanna Gray said, possibly. She herself knew a man from the university who was interested in Napoleon. One day he was irradiated with a concept new to the world.

Wouldn't it be marvelous (it flashed into his mind) to find some living creature who had conversed with Napoleon, and who could give a first-hand account?

And is it not possible (he went on in his speculation) that there might be some very old parrots still alive who had known Napoleon and would be able to talk about the emperor?

So he inquired of the oldest English (and, I suppose, French) admirals he could find to see if any of them had, or knew of, any aged parrots. He also put out the word in such sailor towns as Portsmouth, and even ran ads.

He turned up a lot of old parrots, Gray said, but unfortunately none of them had been an intimate of Napoleon's

But it would be wrong, she indicated, to think only of Fermi, Mike and Elaine, and my dog friend and her parrot friend as products of the university. There is also Milton Friedman, Saul Bellow. Dozens of celebrated names.

The school has a balanced budget, but that does not fool Gray. balance-schmalance. Inflation and a general shrinking are everywhere.

Gray herself formerly taught at Chicago (and will teach an undergraduate course while she is president) and later at Yale, where for a time she was acting president.

The ratio of faculty to students is 1 to 8, and the faculty's distinction is such that Gray counts heavily on their ability, with herself perhaps the catalyst but hardly the authoritarian arbiter of policy.

Where to put the money, where to make the cuts, how to foresee a rising importance of some field of study (so the university is not caught dozing 15 years from now) - these are things to be thought of.

Somehow our conversation turned to lifeboats in which some must perish so that most could survive.

Gray said she was not sure she would like to be in a lifeboat with me. She can be hard. I had spoken highly of flipping coins. But she, perhaps, is more rational.

Nothing is more delightful than exploring lifeboat situations with a sparkling person like Gray when survival is not the immediate issue.

"Would you discuss the predicament with the others in the boat?" she asked. We agreed the solution might well be found by discussion. But care would have to be taken that the fanciest talker did not save his hide merely because he had more skill at arguments, Na.

What would be relevant in such a case" The mere fact that one person was younger and had longer life expectancy." I, spoke strongly for the rights of old people. Survival should not be based on expectancy.

Would it be right to allow one passenger to sacrifice himself himself because his life was in order - many loose ends all wrapped up - and he was willing? What is the essence, after all, of the value of life? It can hardly be to live as long as possible under any conceivable circumstances.

If I understood her right, Gray thought that bizarre as it might seem, a frank and open discussion was the best way to begin.

But how is judgment to be taught in schools, I asked, and since the lifeboat question depends more on moral judgments than anything else, what good is great learning them? And yet we both felt education would be valuable in the lifeboat. Gray thought intellectual honesty might bear strongly on morals in general.

In her own field (late Medieval and Renaissance humanism) she conceded the church was a tremendous factor,

"But there are other ways young people learn morals than from an establishment religion," she said."I am not sure anyone could say young people are less moral than in the past. There is tradition from the family, that is one way people learn. Another way is trying things and seeing they don't work."

Another way is pushing the poor brain, as through books, so that ideas quite new to oneself are apprehended and the complexity of things is better grasped. I inquired what she had learned (in a nutshell) about teaching.

"I learned that to say something is not necessarily to teach it," she said. "I learned to say it more than once, and in many different ways. I also learned there is a variation in a class, quite apart from the teacher, depending on the way other students react,"

"I also learned students want criticism," she said.

Their abnormal state permits them to advance and learn.

Gray also has learned about delayed - fuse comprehension. Sometimes people learn much later what they have always theoretically known.

Gray spoke of "new ideas." These do not consist of slips of paper on which everybody writes down the strangest thing that pops into his mind. Darwin, Freud - it is not that the idea is especially new, but that a whole train of reasoning suddenly becomes convincing.

And sometimes, as in physics, biology, mathematics, quite new things are learned. New knowledge in cells can wind up changing established notions is medicine, in ethics, in custom. People now have different ideas of death than formerly, when a simple check of the heartbeat sufficed.

Gray's husband is also a professor of history. He will teach at Chicago and together they will live in the big President's House. In the past they have moved here and there, according to the career demands of one or the other. Alway it has worked out that both could teach. But Gray would do something else than teach if it meant she and her husband had to separate. She has clear view about first things first.

She is in her mid-40s. Her smile is radiant, but she does not sit about grinning to show it off. Her hair is carefully dressed. She was in Washington for educational meetings and did not seem to think them a chore.

I suspect most people conclude, after a little time with her, that in a crunch or in a lifeboat Hanna Gray is about as good a roll of the dice as you're likely to find, though she would probably argue with you till you had to flat sit down and think a minute.