Battling the flu and concerned about her ailing mother, Joyce A. Ladner was in no mood for a showdown with an angry faculty -- but the interim president of Howard University got one anyway.

After describing the deeply troubled state of what has long been known as the country's most prestigious black university, she found herself questioned about her leadership style, reproached for the way she laid off nearly 400 staff workers and accused of exaggerating the size of the work force to justify the layoffs. For each punch, she had a counter.

"I don't fit into any preconceived models of leadership. I'm Joyce," she answered one critic. Told that her "vision" for Howard's future was feeble, she shot back: "If you don't like the vision I had, well, that's the one I gave, and I did my best." Arching her eyebrows, she concluded in her characteristic subdued voice: "I'm surprised I have a vision at all considering all the work I have."

She won few converts among the mostly critical crowd of about 200 at the November meeting, but her performance was quintessential Ladner: direct, sometimes blunt; deliberate; analytical; unorthodox, often controversial.

It was Ladner, for example, who back in 1990, in one of a number of opinion pieces in The Washington Post, urged her old friend Marion Barry to resign after his drug arrest, saying racism "cannot be used as an excuse for Mayor Barry's misbehavior." And it was Ladner who supported modern-day orphanages for abused children five years before House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a political splash with the notion.

The 51-year-old Mississippi native has molded and refined her persona during various roles as civil rights activist, groundbreaking sociologist, author, teacher, mother, social commentator, Howard vice president for academic affairs and, since last June, interim president. Now she is a candidate -- along with former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder and a host of other people -- to be permanent president. She said she has "some interest" in the job, which is expected to be filled by summer.

It sounds like a well-planned career that has reached a pinnacle -- except, she said, there was little design to it, and the Howard job has mutated from being her greatest professional achievement to her greatest trial. The pressures on her are such that for the first time in her life, she seeks solace every day from the Bible she keeps on her desk, especially Psalm 121: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help."

"I had no idea the difficulties would be as great as they are," she acknowledged. "We face a series of problems that are of deep magnitude," including declining enrollment, deteriorating buildings and eroding academic performance. "Friends say to me, Too bad you are an interim who has to do this work.' But I took the job not to be caretaker."

Indeed, she has shaken up the campus with a restructuring plan that has drawn praise from her supporters -- including some faculty members and trustees, student government leaders and The Post's editorial board -- for her gutsiness and ability to make tough decisions.

Said trustee Thaddeus Garrett Jr., head of the board's transition committee: "She is a compassionate but yet a very strict manager type of person. I think that is helpful in her current situation."

But she also has been the target of severe criticism -- from colleagues, faculty, alumni and students -- that the layoffs were implemented cruelly and harmed the school's operations. "What motivates . . . Ladner is the same thing that motivates people who have power and don't want to share it," said Muriel Poston, president of the elected Faculty Senate. Added Theodore Bremner, a biology professor and member of the senate: "Her only qualification as far as the board is concerned . . . is her disrepect for the faculty."

Ladner also inadvertently picked a fight with some of the country's leading scholars over the termination of Esme Bhan, a long-time research associate at Howard's renowned Moorland-Spingarn Research Center for African American studies. "If, as you maintain, this action was taken only after several levels of review' . . . then I am truly distressed about the future of Howard University under your stewardship," said a Dec. 17 letter to Ladner from David Levering Lewis, historian at Rutgers University and 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner for his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois. Early Lessons Facing down dragons has been Ladner's style since she was a child in Hattiesburg, a city in southeastern Mississippi where she and her eight siblings were raised by their mother, a housewife who died late last month, and their stepfather, an auto mechanic.

"Either you fight or you surrender. That was always our motto," said her sister and soul mate Dorie Ladner Churnet, a social worker at D.C. General Hospital. "And you really had to fight."

Ladner learned to be tough-minded and independent from her mother, who came from a family that believed in self-reliance and who taught her daughters the art of surviving in the segregated South as black females. "Get an education and work for yourself," Joyce recalled her mother's words. Added her sister Dorie: "And don't depend on a man for anything. I can hear that in my ears right now."

Joyce displayed a drive to learn and excel at a very early age, insisting on starting kindergarten with Dorie at the age of 3 1/3. "When I started school, she cried and wanted to go with me," Dorie said. "My mother went to the teacher and asked if Joyce could go. He said, Yes, if you bring me a cigar.' So Joyce was brought to the school and we stayed together throughout. She was exceptionally gifted intellectually."

She was also very competitive -- striving to be president of the local 4-H Club, the National Homemakers of America chapter, YWCA youth programs. It was no surprise when Joyce emerged as valedictorian of her high school class, with her older sister salutatorian in the same class.

"I don't remember a time when I didn't want more," said Ladner, who calls herself a strong believer in "self-empowerment and self-reliance."

Her drive to succeed is fueled by a marked impatience for anything she finds dogmatic, ignorant or simply in the way of her appointed task. It informs her actions (she rejected the dogma of the Baptist Church to become a Unitarian), her speech (witness her snippy retorts to questions she considered confrontational at the faculty meeting) and even her thought.

"My mind moves very fast," she said. "I have to pull myself back sometimes and say to myself, Stop and process this.' . . . I can cut to the bottom line very quickly, but I have to stop myself from doing that sometimes. It can seem like I am flippant, and that is not most desirable."

At a young age she developed a passion -- one that would evolve into her career in sociology -- for watching people and trying to figure out why they did the things they did.

"As a young child I felt that segregation never made sense to me," Ladner recalled. "I'm a logical person. It was illogical that students at my school had to get on a bus for hours and pass white schools on the way. I've always had a passion to correct injustice."

The Ladners had little contact with anybody beyond Hattiesburg -- that is, until a medicine man who went by the name of Dr. McCloud started bringing them magazines and books about the outside world.

McCloud was also a member of the NAACP and he introduced them to the organization. At about that time, when Joyce was 12, the Ladner sisters were shaken by the murder of teenager Emmett Till and subsequent attacks on blacks. "Joyce would run every day to get the newspaper to read about what was going on. And that's when both of us set out to change our environment," Dorie said. "We had the drive to learn, the drive to know, the drive to get beyond that repressive, oppressive segregated society which we were in."

In high school, the sisters formed an NAACP youth chapter and continued their activism after moving 90 miles away to attend Jackson State College. At one point, they organized a civil rights demonstration when James Meredith -- one of their mentors -- was on campus. Police crushed it with dogs and tear gas.

That helped persuade them to leave after a year and enter Tougaloo College, a nearby integrated missionary school at the forefront of the civil rights movement, where Joyce had a white roommate. It was there that they met the Freedom Riders, became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (led by Marion Barry) and worked with many people who today make up America's black leadership.

And it was during this period that Ladner met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose message of nonviolent social change still drives her. She first encountered him in 1962. "I still treasure the autograph he gave me that day," she told a crowd commemorating King's birthday at the Washington Hebrew Congregation this month. She met him again a year later during a pivotal march on Washington, and a few weeks later at a funeral for four girls killed in a Birmingham church.

"How fortunate we were in my generation to be challenged by a dynamic young black man who taught us to try to change the world and not give in to despair," she said at the synagogue. "I blame my generation for not having passed on the lessons we learned in our struggle."

After graduating from Tougaloo with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1964, she moved to Washington University in St. Louis and earned a doctorate. It was 1968, a time when few women, especially black women, had such degrees, and she did it with seminal research on 100 black teenage girls in a St. Louis housing project.

Her work marked the first time any academic had tackled such a subject, and it is still cited today. Furthermore, it set the tone for her approach to sociology that included taking on subjects that more mainstream colleagues would not -- and taking positions on social issues that some of her friends would not. For example, in her 1977 book "Mixed Families," Ladner said adoptions of black children by white parents are sometimes beneficial, this at a time when many African Americans had declared them an unmitigated disaster.

"She cares a lot about people in the social order, helping young people but at the same time not accepting excuses," said Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, who credits her cool response to a confrontation with police in Mississippi in 1966 for saving his life. "She maintains high standards. She doesn't accept rationales that explain away people's need to be responsible or to work hard or be conscientious."

After her first teaching job at Southern Illinois University in a program designed to mainstream poor students, Ladner traveled and taught in Africa. She also taught at Hunter College in New York; last year she was a top candidate to become the school's president.

During the early 1970s, Ladner married Walter Carrington, currently the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. Before divorcing after 11 years, Ladner and Carrington had a son, Thomas, now a college student majoring in drama. When she talks about him, she sounds uncharacteristically vulnerable.

"First and foremost, I am a mother," she said about her relationship to her son, who is dyslexic. "He doesn't hide the fact that he is dyslexic," but he does try to keep his mother's identity quiet to stay out of her shadow -- to the point that Ladner requested that his university not be named. "He was accepted to Howard but chose not to go," she said. "He told me, You'll be in my business.' " 'The Massacre'

For Ladner, staking out controversial positions is not a question of bravery but one of what makes sense. "I will take an unpopular stand if I am convinced it is warranted," she said.

And since becoming interim president of Howard, she has taken several of those stands. The layoffs were only one. Late last month she implemented new registration proceduresthat cracked down hard, after only a few weeks' notice, on students with overdue bills. Ladner wound up in a position to make such decisions after Howard's then-president, Franklyn G. Jenifer, plucked her from the School of Social Work in 1990 to become his most powerful vice president.

With a distinguished academic record but no administrative experience, she learned on the job and took a summer class on budgets at Harvard University. Ladner worked with Jenifer to try to stem the decline of the nation's oldest black university by consolidating academic programs and recruiting award-winning students.

She earned mixed reviews. Some colleagues -- all of whom refused to speak on the record -- said she has never mastered an understanding of budgetary issues.

And the Faculty Senate, which Ladner believes represents only a minority of the faculty, censured her last spring before she became interim president. She was cited for "lack of academic leadership" because of her role in trying to end tenure and in other administration battles. "We don't know why she was made interim president," said James Joseph, a math professor and member of the Faculty Senate.

The reason, trustee Garrett said, was that Ladner's position was closest to the president, since Howard has no provost. Besides, he said, the Board of Trustees liked her -- and still does, "though some say I can't get out praising her because it may look as if we have predetermined the search {for a permanent president}. And it's just the opposite."

So after Jenifer left last April, she was given an annual salary of $216,775 -- some $20,000 more than her predecessor -- and a lot of bad news.

Ladner said she did not realize, until then, that Howard faced projected budget deficits every year. When she told the faculty meeting that she never had seen the full budget when she was vice president, she was hit by hoots of disdain from many who said they did not believe her.

Deciding to cut the work force to help close a projected $25 million budget deficit, Ladner said she took the advice of consultants and aides who told her to fire 400 employees fast. One morning in November, hundreds of administrative workers -- including department heads, guidance counselors and the man she had appointed interim associate vice president for academic affairs -- were told to leave the campus immediately, including many who had been there for decades.

Garrett said the board was behind her, and student leaders, first angry about not being told about the action, came to back her.

"She has a definite cloud over her head {because of the firings} but she made some smart decisions, and I don't think people, particularly students, should come down on her in a negative way," said Erika Watson, 20, head of Howard's Woman to Woman Conference.

But her critics have sung a different tune. They have called the layoffs a "massacre" and accused her of violating the ethical principles that should guide a sociologist. The Service Employees International Union has filed charges against Howard with the National Labor Relations Board.

And some faculty members say she has cut them out of decision-making. "Joyce has been a friend of mine and my wife for years," said Richard P. Thornell, a professor of law and vice chair of the Faculty Senate. "When she was appointed vice president, we gave her a reception. She was one of us. She sat in our living room and said, I will always be your colleague.'

"And I tell you, ever since then she has gone through a metamorphosis to the point that she is thoroughly autocratic."

All of the criticism has left her hurt and defensive. "The whole process has been a very tough one," she said about the layoffs. "You get sleepless nights, whether you should do it, how do you do it. Behind each of these numbers is a real person. There is a face, a family, a mortgage, children to care for. I wish I hadn't had to. I didn't relish it. . . . Had there been another way to address our problems, I would have recommended that to the board." Still, as long as she is in charge, she will do things her way.

"I used to say as a faculty member that we didn't get enough information {from the administration}, so I understand what they are saying," she said. "But the buck stops here. . . . You can't run a major complex organization by consensus. Someone has to make the final decision." CAPTION:Joyce A. Ladner, Howard's interim president: ""The whole process has been a very tough one," she said about the layoffs. "You get sleepless nights, whether you should do it, how do you do it." CAPTION: Joyce Ladner: "My mind moves very fast . . . but I have to stop myself from doing that sometimes. It can seem like I am flippant, and that is not most desirable."