In the 1960s Clark Kerr was president of the University of California, heralding the "multiversity" and sparring with Berkeley student radicals. He became a symbol of liberal permissiveness in Ronald Reagan's 1966 campaign for governor and was fired just three weeks after Reagan took office.

In the 1970s, as head of two Carnegie Foundation study groups, Kerr was a leading advocate of university reform and of massive federal aid to college students.

Retired at age 71 though still busy as an analyst of higher education, Kerr now says almost all "the fundamental changes in universities attempted over the past 20 years have largely failed," including many that he championed. But, he adds, the luster of America's major research universities is undiminished.

"Academic reform was overwhelmed by faculty conservatism," Kerr declared this week in a lecture at the University of Maryland. "Efforts to turn the university into a direct instrument for social change were thwarted. . . . Changes in formal governance have generally made little difference and, when they did, mostly for the worse. All that effort, all that passion, all that turmoil was mostly for naught, but it was also mostly inevitable given the conditions of the times."

A Quaker but not a pacifist, a Pennsylvania farm boy who has lived almost 40 years in the Berkeley hills, Kerr visited the University of Maryland Tuesday and yesterday to help inaugurate a new institute on higher-education research. He also attended a board meeting of the College Park-based National University Consortium, which offers televised courses for college credit, and a meeting in Washington for a nationwide study he is conducting of college presidents. Today Kerr is taking part in a conference at the University of North Carolina. Tomorrow, he said, he will be at his own 50th reunion at Swarthmore.

"I'm still spending a lot of time on 747s and L1011s," Kerr remarked in an interview. "But I have cut back. I used to work 90-hour weeks. I suppose I'm down to 60-hour weeks now."

In nine years that Kerr was president, the University of California doubled its enrollment to 88,000 and developed three new campuses. Its main campus at Berkeley edged out Harvard as the top-rated graduate school in the country.

"When that happened," Kerr recalled, "I sent to President [Nathan] Pusey at Harvard--without intending any offense--an Avis button. I never got a reply."

He did travel to Harvard in 1963 to deliver the Godkin lectures, which were published as a book, "The Uses of the University." In it Kerr popularized the term "multiversity" to describe the transformation of the American research university from "a single community . . . of masters and students" to a complex "city state . . . inconsistent [and] divided," that trains skilled personnel for industrial society and is led by a president who, Kerr said, is "mostly a mediator" between interest groups.

"It's a book that I probably never should have written given the fact that I was a university president," Kerr said. "It had some repercussions. The faculty members at Berkeley were not happy with my comments that no group is as radical about the affairs of others and as conservative about their own as university faculty."

It also caused problems for Kerr when the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley exploded in the fall of 1964 with sit-ins and mass demonstrations, the first major campus uprising of the 1960s. "All of a sudden the Berkeley protesters turned it around and misquoted it," he recalled, "and said I wanted the research university to be a 'knowledge factory,' a phrase I never used."

Kerr, a liberal, was caught in the middle. He once had a custard pie thrown in his face. But at two major demonstrations he opposed using police to disperse student protesters, and was roundly criticized by alumni and politicians, including Reagan, for tolerating disorder.

Kerr still strongly believes he made the right decisions. "First, as a Quaker, I felt that force was the last resort," he said. "And second, out of my industrial relations experience [as a strike mediator], I realized that the use of violence embitters the situation for years."

But when he eventually was fired as university president, the issue didn't involve demonstrators but budgets and the keeping of free tuition. On this, Kerr says, he has changed his mind.

"I had just taken the standard dogma that no-tuition favored the poor student," he explained. "I hadn't thought about it. Everybody said it. . . . As we made our studies under the Carnegie Commission, I realized that a very high proportion of students at the University of California came from upper-income families. This was free ride for the well-to-do. . . . I now think it's better to charge a moderate level of tuition and have a strong program of financial aid for those who can't afford it."

He has had second thoughts--though not outright reversals--about some of his other ideas too.

In the 1970s Kerr's proposals for grants and subsidized loans for college students helped launch giant federal programs. Now he says "all those billions of federal dollars" did raise college attendance levels, but mainly by attracting more middle-class students rather than low-income ones. Although the money it brought to education was desirable, Kerr said federal aid "also subsidized middle-income hedonism by reducing financial burdens on middle-income parents."

Because of federal policies more blacks and other minorities are attending college, Kerr said, "but most of them come from higher-income groups."

Kerr said he favored President Reagan's proposals last year to cut student loan funds because the program "subsidized the middle class." "I think it's a good thing for families who can to make some sacrfices for their children," he explained, "and for their children to know it." But he said he opposes the aid cuts Reagan is seeking this year because "they hurt low-income kids."

Although Kerr favored many of the innovative programs and academic reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he said about 90 percent of them "have disappeared entirely or are just shadows of what they attempted." Besides the conservatism of most faculty members, he said, the reforms were "stung to death by the hornets they attracted" among disaffected faculty and disenchanted students who "wouldn't let anything work well, particularly somebody else's attempted reforms."

Using the university as a base for transforming society was wrong in principle and counterproductive in practice, Kerr said, because it stirred a conservative reaction. It also led to a loss of academic freedom on the campus itself. "We destroyed academic freedom 10 or 100 times as much [from] inside the campuses, as from pressures outside," he said. "As individuals, we should take positions. . . . But I think it was disastrous, some of the things we did in the 1960s. We didn't use the facts. Often we distorted them. We were threatening or actually using violence. . . . A lot of the trouble in the 1960s was that higher education abandoned its principles, and the public resented it."

Kerr said the great efforts expended in changing the ways that universities are governed have had little effect. Students placed on committees, he said, "seldom attend or participate erratically if they do." But the general increase in "participatory democracy" has produced an ironic result. There is "more commitment to the status quo," Kerr explained. "The status quo is the only solution that cannot be vetoed."

Despite all this, Kerr said, research universities are flourishing, largely unchanged from what they were 20 years ago. In fact, he said, they are still run mostly by their faculties. Contrary to many universities in Europe, those in America have maintained their independence and integrity, he said, by having many sources of financial support--federal, state, and private.

"We went too far on this idea that the federal government is the only place to go for money ," he told one higher-education lobbyist at his Maryland lecture. "It's the states who have been steady and maintained their support, while the federal government has gone up and down."

At 10:30 p.m. Kerr kept talking patiently to people who came up to him after the lecture, his blue eyes still bright behind rimless glasses. He was even somewhat mellow about Reagan. "He has a quick mind and he does learn from experience," Kerr said of the president. "He does adjust."

But he added: "That's quite different from saying he has wisdom."