Charcoal smoke and the pungent smell of sizzling sausages wafted through the stone buildings of Oxford University's ancient Magdalen College. Illuminated under colored lights was the perpetrator of this affront to tradition, speaking in an unmistakable American accent. He is Keith B. Griffin, the new president of the college, a Yank at Oxford.

From the medieval spires that rise through the fog to the gray-haired dons who stumble through their own fog, Oxford is the symbol of everything English. As a guardian of traditions, seemingly impervious to the 20th century, Oxford is a pinnacle of English culture. For an American--a "colonial"--to preside over Magdalen College is almost heresy--a bit like Oral Roberts University electing Hugh Hefner as president.

Keith Griffin is by nature quiet and unobtrusive, a serious scholar who wishes he could spend more time on research. But there is a more vigorous side to him: the man of change who doesn't believe, for example, in providing servants for students or maintaining centuries-old formality in his president's house. To some here, this makes Griffin a radical upstart.

The son of a U.S. Army officer, Griffin passed his childhood touring the world as his father was transferred throughout Latin America and Japan. He spent his last two years in high school in Killeen, Texas, where he met his future wife, Dixie, and won a scholarship to Williams College in Massachusetts. From there, Griffin, successful student and fraternity president, won a Marshall scholarship to Oxford University. In 1960 the young couple were married at Oxford, and Griffin began to study for a graduate degree in economics at Balliol College.

"The food was terrible and the heating was atrocious, so we were rather pleased to go" after two years, he recalled. The couple moved to Santiago, Chile, where he was a visiting professor, and then to Algeria, where he advised the government on agricultural planning. While in Algiers, Griffin cabled Magdalen College to inquire about an opening as economics tutor. A return cable advised him to fly to England promptly for an interview, and to bring a tuxedo. A few days later he was elected a teaching fellow of Magdalen College.

The College of St. Mary Magdalen is one of the richest and most beautiful of Oxford. Founded in 1458, it looms over the River Cherwell on more than 100 acres of fields and forests at the edge of the city. It has a reputation for having rich, arrogant young men as students and is considered one of the most aristocratic of the 35 Oxford colleges.

Magdalen College, like the others loosely grouped together as Oxford University, is autonomous. It selects and generally instructs its own students. The fellows (breezily known as dons) meet with students in one-on-one sessions to discuss essays the students have written. Magdalen College has about 450 students and 57 dons.

For centuries its name has been pronounced "Maudlin College." For consistency, this requires the college chaplain to pronounce Mary Magdalen as "Mary Maudlin" in his prayers.

In 1979, when Griffin had been a don for 14 years, the college president retired. After a series of meetings, but no campaigning, the dons met in the college chapel and filled out their ballots in Latin. Griffin was elected president.

He is only the second American to head an Oxford college. The late Arthur L. Goodhart of University College was the first. At 40, Griffin also was the youngest head of an Oxford college elected since World War II. Because Magdalen's president serves until the age of 70, he could look forward to a long reign.

"Many of us wanted an energetic president . . . to shake things up a bit," said law tutor Roger J. Smith. "The college was in the 19th century and needed to be brought into the 20th century."

First to get shaken up was the president's lodging, a magnificent six-bedroom stone house in the midst of the college buildings. Part of the house was constructed in the 15th century, but most was built at the end of the 19th century. Behind the lodging is the college's sprawling deer park, with 38 deer.

The two previous presidents had been bachelors, and much of the house was in poor repair. Students and fellows watched--some pleased, some aghast--as the decor was changed from largely Victorian to what one student called "modern American tacky." The dons were invited to--and some perplexed by--a barbecue in the back yard.

Previously, custom had ordained that a visitor should wear a black academic gown when calling on the president. Griffin announced he did not expect his visitors to wear gowns.

More controversial was his decision last year to dismiss many old college employes. Magdalen's finances had been treated laxly, and out of loyalty the college kept most employes almost until they dropped dead. Many of these employes were "scouts"--typically elderly women who woke students up in the morning, made their beds, washed their teacups and sometimes even polished their shoes and did their laundry. Griffin announced that there would be fewer scouts and they would be obliged only to vacuum the rooms and empty the wastepaper baskets.

"To put it bluntly," Griffin said, "it seemed to me absurd that in the last quarter of the 20th century, undergraduates should not be making their own beds."

Aside from occasional grumblings about having to make their beds, most students seem oblivious to Griffin. "The president?" shrugged one second-year student. "He smiles at me occasionally." But Dixie Griffin startled the English students with her energetic, vivacious manner and her strong Texas accent. An active, outspoken women with no English reserve, she has been known to dance disco with the students.

Keith Griffin is more reticent. A thoughtful man, he is anything but a jovial backslapper. Some Americans among Magdalen's sizable overseas student population complain that he is aloof and arrogant; others defend him. Although he became an English citizen last year, he remains an American in almost everyone's mind.

The Britons in the college were taken aback when Sally J. Kenney, an American student from Des Moines, was elected the 1981-82 president of the Magdalen junior common room, the undergraduate organization. Kenney, who admires Griffin, said, "He'll do whatever he can to get money out of students, but he fights fair."

"We couldn't believe it," said one English student. "First an American president. Then an American JCR president--and she was a woman!"

Griffin still tutors some students in his specialty, economics of developing countries. Author of 13 books and countless articles in both English and Spanish, Griffin has not abandoned his scholarly work since becoming president. He hopes to devote at least one month every summer to research in a developing nation. His interest now is focused on China.

As college president, Griffin, father of two, receives a $38,000 salary, in addition to lodging and some meals, in large part for raising funds and controlling the college's finances. He has placed tighter reins on expenses and has emphasized contributions from alumni.

One of his primary goals is to refurbish the college buildings. Some, such as the great tower, were badly corroded by centuries of wind, water and air pollution, and much of the student housing, while spacious, lacked central heating and was far from running water. Now the great tower gleams after thorough repair and cleaning.

Griffin also aims to recast Magdalen's upper-crust image. He was an early proponent of admitting women, who finally were allowed into the college in 1979, and he now hopes to increase their numbers from the current level of about 25 percent. He also wants to increase the proportion of students from British state-run schools. Almost half of Magdalen's students come from elite private schools (known here as "public schools"), which educate fewer than 10 percent of England's young people. Yet Griffin insists that democratization must come not from affirmative action but from patience and encouraging more qualified women and state-school students to apply.

The dons always have been distant socially from the students, and Griffin is encouraging more interaction. Recently, the college began inviting undergraduates to dine with the fellows on "high table" each Sunday evening. "It's nothing very dramatic," Griffin said of his changes, "just chipping away and trying to break down the barriers."

Dixie Griffin agreed, admitting to a certain pleasure when she sees students taking shortcuts across the forbidden grass in the courtyards. It breaks down rigidity, she said with a smile.

"Keith's greatest virtue," said tutor Colin F.H. Tapper, "is that he's quite a radical man--he's got some bold ideas--but he's so sincere and honest about it. He can disagree strongly with people without ever upsetting them."

A sign that Griffin already has made his mark is a carved stone head in his likeness attached among the gargoyles of an ancient college wall. It smiles down on a courtyard--a grinning Yankee face amid the English grandeur.