He has this thing about time. He seems to be afraid it will escape him, so he seizes each minute with a certain deliberate ferocity.

His own explanation is that he was trained as an astronomer, and is forever aware of those 18 billion years since the solar system's Big Bang, and what a long time that was, and what a short time we have.

But it could have been the three years he spent -- a fiercely energetic small boy -- flat on his back with a rheumatic heart.

On the eve of taking over the presidency of The American University tomorrow, Dr. Richard Berendzen -- the man who dreams of making AU a Harvard on the Potomac -- likes to say, "I have a profound sense of my own fragility as a human being."

He does not seem fragile to most people, not at all. In fact he frightens them a little, with his crackling energy. Up at 8, he comes to work as provost at 9, drives straight through to 5 or 6 p.m., freshens up for a dinner, ducks away at, say, 9 to return to his office, works there a few hours more ("the quietude from 10 to 3 is magnificent"), and finally goes home to Bethesda.

Some nights he puts on his jogging shorts and runs up and down the 500-foot corridor of his apartment building. It's great, he says: the carpeting, the air-conditioning, the absence of dogs and cars. Just now and then a few stares from late-returning residents.

He sleeps three to five hours a night. On weekends he makes up for it and sacks out for 10 or 11 hours.

"I'm not superhuman," he says. "I yawn a lot."

After all, today's university president is a lot closer to Lee Iacocca than to Mr. Chips. As one of the youngest people ever named president of a major university -- with 15,000 people on campus and 30,000 alumni -- 41-year-old Berendzen faces pressures that would daunt more than one corporation president.

When he isn't confronting student protesters over the tuition or reviewing budget details with deans and trustees, he will be writing and delivering speeches, lecturing, going on TV to discuss the university's handling of Iranian students (104 countries are represented at AU), interviewing Rhodes scholarship applicants and reading, reading, reading. And answering the phone.

He started as a teacher. How did he get into this? It came in stages: first he helped design some curricula, then he found himself writing textbooks, and before he knew it he was heading a department. Then things really began to happen.

Time. There is never enough of it. In his journey from the scholarship at MIT to the advanced degrees at Harvard, the years teaching astronomy at Harvard, Boston and AU, the administrative career that started in 1974 as a dean at American and brought him to top academic post of provost in 1976, he has barely stopped for breath. Like all driving men, he seems in turn to be driven, but it is hard to say by what.

"My father worked a 60-hour week in a Dallas hardware store," he said, "not that that's all that extraordinary.But I was given the idea that the world doesn't owe you anything. You work for what you get. There's an obligation to benefit society, more than just making money. I was raised to do something with my life, and I was surprised to learn that a lot of people aren't raised that way. I just assumed it."

He has always been early. He married as a high school senior, had a daughter who now lives in Texas ("we grew up together"), was divorced, remarried, and has an 8-year-old daughter by his second wife, Gail.

"Age never struck me as necessarily the right criterion," he says in his somewhat abstract way.

His sense of time leads him to examine his life constantly, day by day, week by week. "They talk about MBO, management by objectives, in industry and government. I do a personal form of this. You can be an incredibly stern critic of yourself. If you can't study yourself with candor, you've got a problem."

He is baffled by the thank-God-it's-Friday mentality. He can't understand how people can squander the quick tick of time that is our lives. On weekends he keeps busy too, though occasionally the family goes antiquing, haunts galleries, old bookstores, bazaars.

"It's hard for me to lie fallow. I probably don't spend enough time just doing nothing. My wife makes life enjoyable for me; without her life would be nothing."

He reads a lot. He collects Oriental art. Once he actually gave a lecture on Oriental rugs in downtown Tehran. ("Sheer gall," he laughs. "Maybe that was part of our problem with Iran.") It's not only the beauty of the rugs that attracts him; it's the sense of time devoted, two or three years to a single rug, the humility that can let such a creation go unsigned.

Berendzen says he loves to teach and is proud of his teaching awards above all else. What he calls his "Curriculum Vita" is 45 pages long and includes this item: "Recipient of some of the highest evaluations by students on quality of teaching ever collected at Harvard University, Boston University or The American University."

It also includes 24 pages of publications, from a book, "Man Discovers the Galaxies," all the way down to reviews, lectures and letters to the editor.

"What do I see in the future for the university? Why don't you ask me why I came here? I'd been comfortable at Harvard, but I severed that connection in '74 to be dean of arts and sciences and physics professor here. The reason was that I have a dream about the great university of Washington. t

"This is one of the few world capitals that doesn't have a great university, a Harvard or a Stanford. You can live here and not even feel the presence of academe. And yet, look that that extraordinarily arrogant name, THE American University. The founders in 1893 literally thought it would be just that.

"I want a truly national and international university, that can be thought of, irrespective of one's own alma mater, as being one's school too."

He has his work cut out. For one thing, AU's endowment comes to a grand total of $5 million, a tenth of its annual operating budget. In the face of that, he is determined not to turn it into a diploma factory.

"I've told parents, if the kids are coming here because they live on Long Island and they want to play in Fort Lauderdale and this is halfway between, please don't unpack. Don't move into the dorm. Just go home. We depend on tuition to survive, but we won't survive if we aren't good.I tell 'em not to waste our time."

This brisk attitude has ruffled some feathers at AU. Staffers speak with admiration, awe and sometimes resentment of his intolerance of incompetence or lack of dedication, his demands on the people who work under him, his impatience with those who disagree.

"He's a workaholic," one administrator said. "He's dedicated to HIS cause, and he's the one who defines its limits and goals, and if you don't agree with him, though luck. On the other hand, there's no question he's having a positive effect on the university. That idea of his -- Harvard on the Potomac by 1985 -- we're really beginning to think it can be done."

In fact, Berendzen is not unique. He seems to be one of a new breed of hard-charging university presidents who have appeared in the best Darwinian tradition to confront these troubled times for higher education.

When Joseph J. Sisco resigned as president last July by mutual agreement (some trustees were unhappy with the amount of time he spent away from AU lecturing on the Middle East, his specialty), Provost Berendzen was elected within the week to succeed him.

Board Chairman Bishop James K. Mathews said the vote was unanimous and the whole transition very smooth. This did not surprise some faculty members, who suggested that Berendzen "had been working toward that goal for three years." No one inside academia has to be told that it is a world fully as tough and competitive as the business world.

Berendzen pointed out that his election came after a meeting of some 150 AU leaders who gave him overwhelming support.

"You name an internal person who's already on the scene and has maybe made some decisions that didn't please everybody, and there's bound to be some nervous people. It's not as glamorous as naming some glittering outsider."

In any case, he had nothing but good words for the "support and camaraderie" he found on the campus.

What changes does Berendzen plan for American University?

Basically, they call for more participation by everyone, a socks-up attitude to replace the laissez-faire approach of many modern parents and teachers. Some changes have already been made by the provost, notably a code of conduct and an exit exam.

"I found the students were allowed to do anything they wanted, in class and out, so I tightened dorm regulations, cracked down on vandalism -- we had a drop of $80,000 in vandalism the first year -- and increased study time and time with the faculty. They work harder now, and that time has to be taken from somewhere." The implication was that it is taken from goof-off time.

AU is the first major university in the country to require all students to pass a competency exam before they can graduate, no matter how good their marks.

"Even the best universities have been graduating people who are demonstrably illiterate," he said. "It's a national disgrace."

He wants to take arms against the excesses of "credentialing," the inflation of grades, the pressure by the parent, via the student, to give top grades "so the kid can get into law school."

"I get calls from parents in Miami, and they have the lawyer right there with them and they're ready to sue. I say, if the kid doesn't have the marks to get into law school, that's his problem. Faculty members are derelict when they fail to tell the students when they're wrong."

In his own teaching, he says, he's had hundreds of complaints about low grades "but never a one about a mark that was too high. Amazing."

But just in case you think you've now got the hang of Richard Berendzen, you should understand that he has been known to crack up his staff with his spur-of-the-moment clowning. As a boy he once blew up the sidewalk in front of his Dallas home, causing a UFO crash scare.

"I'm an up person," he likes to say. "I don't get angry a lot, I don't slam doors, though I'm told it's a good thing to do occasionally. There's only one thing that sets me off, and that's when someone fails to do a job and the thing falls on me."

In other words, the job would have to be done twice. And that would be squandering a small part of the cosmic moment that is his life. And, as any creative clock-watcher is agonizingly aware, every minute lost is a minute never to be regained.

Some thoughts of President Berendzen:

That academic freedom must remain inviolate is manifest: so too is the incontrovertible fact that tenure has become not the last bastion of free intellectual inquiry but the ultimate citadel of self-serving job security.

The student as the humble learer and fledging scholar has given way to the questioning consumer and proto-jobseeker.

In nature, at least, growth just for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

For the first time in our history, parents may have more formal education than their children.

Tragically, we have forgotten too often that the principal role of the academy should be the inculcation of an ethos -- not only the imparting of facts and credentials but also the nurturing of methods and attitudes. --The College Board Review, 1977