A former Virginia community college administrator, who was found to have plagiarized portions of his doctoral thesis, has emerged as one of three finalists for the $61,880-a-year post of chancellor of Virginia's community college system.

The proposed appointment of Dr. Dana B. Hamel, director of special academic programs at Virginia State University in Petersburg, has been pushed by several of the state's leading political figures, including former governor Mills E. Godwin, who named Hamel to the chancellor's position in 1966. Hamel served until 1979 when he was forced to resign after reports of financial mismanagement in the system.

The possibility of his return has stirred criticism from faculty groups, who have charged that Hamel's reinstatement would undermine the academic integrity of Virginia's 23-campus community college system.

"If a student of mine had turned in that paper Hamel's doctoral thesis , I would have given him a zero, no grade at all," said Jim McClellan, chairman of the Faculty Senate of Northern Virginia Community College, which recently urged the State Board of Community Colleges not to pick Hamel. "I don't tolerate that from my students and I certainly don't want to tolerate that from the chancellor," said McClellan.

The controversy surrounding Hamel, 59, stems from disclosures that parts of his 1962 doctoral thesis at the University of Cincinnati had been lifted from earlier works on the same subject.

The dissertation, a history of the Ohio Mechanics Institute, a small technical school in Cincinnati founded in 1828, contained "considerable portions" that were "substantially similar" to two histories of the school written in 1853 and 1878, according to a University of Cincinnati committee that investigated the matter in 1980.

The university faculty later concluded that Hamel's plagiarism was not intentional and did not remove his doctorate. It did, however, attach a cover note to all copies of the dissertation at the school, noting of its similarity to the earlier works.

Hamel yesterday said he had been "cleared of willful misdeeds" and that, while he did not footnote the earlier books, he did list them in his bibliography. "If I had been planning on plagiarizing, Lord knows I wouldn't have put them in there," he said.

Hamel suggested that much of the opposition to his proposed appointment comes from faculty members displeased with some of his earlier actions as head of the system, including the abolition of academic tenure. "You're not going to please everybody when you do a job," Hamel said.

After he resigned, Hamel served as a $51,000-a-year consultant to the system. As a tough-minded administrator, he won praise for building up the community college system. Despite the unhappiness of faculty groups, Hamel is viewed as one of the leading contenders for his old job, which is expected to be decided June 30 by a 15-member state board. Hamel's closeness with key political figures in the state has been one of his key assets, state officials said yesterday.

His prospects have been clouded by the recent opposition. George Gilliam, a state board member from Charlottesville, said yesterday he opposed Hamel's appointment and Doreen Williams, a board member from Fairfax County, said yesterday that she was "disturbed" by the plagiarism findings.

Gilliam said he would back one of the other two candidates, Donald Puyear, president of Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, and Johnas Hockaday of Sanford, N.C., chief administrator of Central Carolina Technical College.