For months there had been talk at Georgetown University of changes at the prestigious 1,600-student graduate school, but few faculty or students were prepared for the sweeping restructuring announced by the university's administrators last week.

The decision to scrap or suspend 10 graduate programs, while expanding nine others, was Georgetown's attempt to emphasize areas where it sees greater potential for growth and for achieving excellence in a time of diminished resources.

Many American universities face similar problems, according to education experts, but hardly any have taken steps as bold as Georgetown to do something about them.

"It is politically very difficult for a university to do something like this," said Daniel Breneman, a specialist in education at the Brookings Institution.

Reorganizations such as Georgetown's are unusual, partly because most schools are unwilling to face the heat that inevitably follows, he said, explaining that "It's so much easier to let everyone bear a little of the pain, instead of taking a more hard-nosed approach" of scrapping entire degree programs.

Not since the Vietnam-war era, in fact, has Georgetown seen the kind of dissent that has flared over the restructuring plan, which would eliminate graduate degrees in physics, accounting, Russian, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Portugese.

Aside from the eight discontinued programs, which will accept no students after this fall, the Latin American and Russian area studies are to be suspended and revamped this year. In addition, graduate degree programs in government, philosophy and economics are to be suspended in 1985 unless those departments generate acceptable plans to strengthen them. The plan involves no faculty cutbacks. Instead, members of the graduate faculty will take on heavier undergraduate loads, officials said.

The criticism from faculty members and students centers not only on the cutbacks and the priorities that they reveal, but on the way that a major decision was made without input by students and without consulting the executive committee of the graduate school faculty, which by the school's constitution is supposed to consider such changes.

Georgetown's faculty senate, in an unusual action, voted unanimously last Thursday to urge the university's board of directors to scrap the reorganization plan. The next day, the Graduate Student Organization condemned the administration for not divulging sooner such a major step, which had been approved by the 33-member Georgetown board of directors on May 6.

The plan had been under consideration for several years by university officials and, despite the criticism, they do not appear inclined to change it.

"We anticipated that there would be some opposition," said Richard B. Schwartz, the dean of the graduate school and one of the plan's architects. "It is a significant step to take. It takes courage to do it. I am sure that we did the right thing. I am told that we did the right thing by the board of directors, the board of regents, and faculty around the campus."

"It is painful. We regret the pain and our heart goes out" to students and faculty upset by the plan, he added.

Schwartz acknowledged that the administration's review committee, which formulated the restructuring plan, had sidestepped the graduate school's constitution. Instead of consulting the executive committee, which includes the heads of major departments, the administration chose to name five faculty members to help draft the plan.

Schwartz said that Georgetown wanted an objective assessment of its graduate programs and felt that this would be difficult for the executive committee because members would be voting on whether to scrap each other's programs. They "would be in the awkward position of taking allocations away from colleagues," he explained.

"We definitely wanted faculty opinion, but wanted it to be objective in deciding what is best for Georgetown," Schwartz said.

All five of the faculty members recruited by the administration come from departments that emerged among the nine "designated for excellence" and increased funding. These are history, English, chemistry, Arab studies, Arabic, foreign service, business administration, linguistics, and Spanish.

These specialties are to receive a greater share of the $1.6 million in graduate scholarships and fellowships available from the unversity and a large portion of the planned $4 million faculty development fund that will free teachers from teaching to allow them to pursue writing and research.

The faculty senate noted the "almost incredible correlation" between departments represented by the review group and those that benefit under the plan they helped draft.

Schwartz said that the plan originated in 1978 when Donald Herzberg, then the graduate dean, met in executive session with Georgetown's board of directors to discuss a "reallocation of resources."

Herzberg received "unanimous support" to draft a report on possible changes, Schwartz said. He said it was understood by the directors and administrators that a major restructuring would be "extremely difficult to accomplish through normal governance channels" and therefore the executive committee was not consulted.

Herzberg died in 1979 and Schwartz succeeded him in 1981, playing a major role in the administration's review committee, which includes college deans and other top officials. Each department was asked to submit five-year plans that were reviewed by the committee in determining the future of each specialty, officials said.

Valerie A. Earle, a professor of government who is president of the faculty senate, said that faculty members were not aware that those plans were to be part of the review process that led to dropping degree programs.

"A good university does not cut down its graduate programs. That is an article of faith," she said. As to the manner of drafting the plan, she declared: "No first-class university does this kind of stuff . . . . It seems to me out of character with Georgetown, where due process and regard for procedure has been very high."

The university's provost, the Rev. J. Donald Freeze, stressed in his announcement of the new blueprint for the graduate school that eliminating the eight weaker graduate programs--which had a combined total of only about 200 students--would enable Georgetown to strengthen other graduate programs to enhance the university's status.

A major goal of the plan, he said, was to enable the university to concentrate on its 5,000-student undergraduate program.

"Our primary mission and our current national distinction are in undergraduate education," Freeze said. "We have recommended that many of our departments direct their talent and resources solely to undergraduate education."

Graduate students and faculty members, however, said that eliminating graduate programs will harm undergraduate studies because Georgetown will have a harder time attracting quality teachers in the disciplines that have no graduate programs.

"If you want to have a good undergraduate program in anything," Earle said, "You have got to offer a graduate program. You just cannot attract the first-class faculty you want if you don't have graduate-level work for them."

Schwartz acknowledged that there is some merit to that view, but emphasized that Georgetown is interested in recruiting teachers interested in "first-class undergraduate education."

The announcement's timing also has been a source of controversy.

"One thing we are really upset about is that they pushed this through at this time of year, at the end of the semester, when we are busy grading and taking finals," said Apryll Natoli, vice president of the Graduate Student Organization. Natoli, a doctoral student in chemistry, said she collected 600 signatures against the plan in a single day, as part of a larger petition drive.

Schwartz said the administration could have presented the plan to the board of directors in May or waited until the next meeting in October.

"Either way, it would have been painful," he said, "There is no good time."