Administrators of the University of Maryland have warned state legislators that postponing merit raises for state college and university teachers from July until January may force some of the better faculty members to seek higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Legislation authorizing $3.5 million in 5.1 percent merit raises next January has passed the Maryland legislature and does not need the governor's signature.

The legislature authorized a 2 percent across-the-board increase for all state employes except college teachers, to go into effect July 1. The university system had hoped to institute 5.1 percent raises at the same time as an incentive for the best teachers to stay in the system. Department heads at the University of Maryland said recently that, despite a tight employment market for college-level teachers, they believe some of their staff members are now looking for jobs elsewhere. Postponing the merit increases will save the state $2.6 million.

"If you have someone in your department you think is being underpaid, compared to his peers, the raise is crucial," said William Fourney, chairman of the mechanical engineering department at the university. "If I don't want to lose these individuals, I have to have this."

"We recruit talented people, and they get stolen away from us," said William Kirwan, academic affairs vice chancellor at College Park.

There are currently 2,376 teachers at College Park and the three other University of Maryland campuses. The average salary among them is $26,057, compared with $31,168 at comparable state-run schools nationwide, a study by the American Association of University Professors indicates.

About 20 to 30 faculty members at the College Park campus leave yearly to take higher salaries in other jobs, Kirwan said. Of that 5 percent, more than half go to other academic institutions, while others--often engineering, computer science, and business professors--are hired in the private sector, he added.

A year ago, the legislature authorized a 9 percent annual increase for all state employes and 5.2 percent merit raises for some teachers. University officials would not say how merit increases were awarded.

While state employes generally did not receive merit increases, the state in recent years has made a commitment to bring salaries at the nine schools in the Maryland system up to the level of other state-run schools it considers peers.

During this year's session, Del. Charles Ryan (D-Prince George's) was among those legislators who questioned the right of university staff to additional raises: "Are college professors any different from state professional staff?" he asked.

"We've cut everybody," said Sen. Francis Kelly (D-Baltimore County), a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's not unreasonable; we've given them university faculties a lot of money in the past." But, he said, "The faculty are crucial and important. If it weren't for tax increases needed to cover additional state expenses in fiscal '84, money for salary increases would be "the first thing I would vote to restore."

Faculty maintain that teacher salaries cannot be equated with those of other state employes. "That's a completely specious argument," said chemistry professor John Weiner, president of the College Park campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. "You can't have a public commitment to transform the university into a high-quality institution, then say they should get equal pay treatment with a clerk I at the Department of Motor Vehicles."

University Board of Regents members, including former U.S. senator Joseph Tydings and former governor Blair Lee, told legislators that they were pressing for the raises--at the expense of some programs and in the face of a 13 percent tuition increase scheduled for next fall--because of the commitment made to improve salaries.

The University requested nearly $193 million to operate in the 1984 fiscal year, but that was trimmed to $191 million in January by Gov. Harry Hughes for inclusion in his proposed budget. The legislature finally authorized $188.2 million.

Only one new state university program was authorized by the legislature this year, $600,000 for an engineering research center that will function as a high-tech cooperative extension service program, said university president John Toll. Engineering firms interested in locating in the state could consult the service about facilities and other resources, Toll said. The university hopes to open two extension offices next fall, one in Montgomery County and one in the Baltimore area.

The program is heavily supported by Hughes, because of its potential to bring jobs to the state.