Cleveland L. Dennard, a vigorous administrator who shaped Washington Technical Institute since it opened nine years ago, yesterday was named president of Atlanta University, one of only two predominantly black universities in the country that offer doctoral degrees.

Dennard 48, had been a strong contender to become the first president of the University of the District of Columbia, into which WTI was merged on Aug 1. But he was sharply opposed by a group of faculty members who contended that he was too committed to vocational programs, which have been emphasized at WTI, rather than liberal arts.

The job went instead to Lisle C. Carter Jr., chancellor of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of six colleges with which Atlanta University is affiliated.

Dennard, who always rejected criticism that he would downgrade tough academic programs, said yesterday that his new appointment was "indeed ironic."

He noted that Atlanta university's most famous professor was W.E.B. Du Bois, who pushed for rigorous university training for the most "talented tenth" of black students.

Dennard added:

"The role this university now is to provide leadership, particularly among blacks who will compete sector, on merit. Our thrust has to be for the really talented young people . . . to prepare themselves for the serious business of America."

Atlanta University was founded in 1865, and has taught graduate courses exclusively since 1929. Last year it had 1,360 students, all of them candidates for master's and Ph.D. degrees. The only other balck university accredited to award doctorates is Howard.

In Washington, Dennard served as president of WTI since it opened in 1967, shaping its two-year vocational programs - and even the unusual design of its $68.3 million campus at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW.

Last year, the school had an enrollment of about 4,900 - about two-thirds part-timers - and an annual budget of $16.4 million.

Dennard won wide support among congressmen and city officials as WTI developed without serious confussion or controversy, in contrast ot the turmoil that marked the early years of Federal City College have now been merged into the new D.C. university.

In June, when the D.C. University trustees passed him over for selection as President of the new city university, Dennard abruptly resigned as head of WTI with no public explanation.

Yesterday, he said had quit because "my function was completed," and added: "I tend to be a front-end type."

Since then, Dennard said, he has received 22 job offers, including the post of president of 14 different colleges and universities. He said he look the post at Atlanta University because it is "a major challenge and a real opportunity for leadership."

University officials in Atlanta would not disclose Dennard's new salary, but sources said it was "well in excess" of the $43,950 he earned at WTI.

He will start his new job Sept. 1, just a month before Carter takes over as president of the University of D.C.

Dennard said yesterday that he had Carter have been "friends of long-standing, both professional and personal. He's a very able man. He should do an outstanding job."

Before coming to Washington, Dennard served two years as deputy man-power commissioner in New York. For five years before that he was principal of a large vocational and adult school in Atlanta.

"He's just coming home here," Ernestine M. Comer, secretary of the Atlanta University trustees, said yesterday. "It looks like Atlanta and Washington are swapping (college) presidents."