Goucher College in Towson, a 98-year-old bastion of women's education, was censured yesterday by the American Association of University Professors for dismissing four tenured faculty members in 1979 in an effort to avert a looming financial crisis.

The AAUP, which represents 65,000 university instructors, said Goucher and five other colleges had violated widely accepted principles of academic freedom in laying off teachers under the pretext of budget problems.

Goucher officials, who defended the layoffs as crucial to the survival of the institution, said yesterday that the censure will have no ill effect on the college's accreditation or its recruitment of students and faculty. Goucher currently has 80 full-time faculty members, 43 of whom are tenured, and about 1,000 students.

But the issue raises questions about the ability of small colleges to remain financially solvent at a time when they must adjust to the changing demands of students and society. The problem is particularly acute at some small colleges whose endowments are shrinking and enrollments are dwindling. During the past decade, budgetary constraints have threatened the assumed status of tenured faculty members and raised the issue of academic freedom.

Goucher president Rhoda Dorsey, in a strongly worded statement yesterday, defended colleges' right to balance competing interests as they see fit.

"We believe the members of a college community have the responsibility to design and implement policies appropriate to this institution," said Dorsey. "These should not be determined by any outside body."

The censure stemmed from a request by Professor Gretl Chapman that AAUP investigate Goucher's 1979 decision to cut her position in the visual arts department. College officials said Chapman--along with tenured professors in the English, music, and language departments--was dismissed after a faculty committee warned that the college must change its curriculum dramatically or face a budget crisis and continued declining enrollment.

The committee set up guidelines to change the curriculum and to cut programs and positions that had drawn fewer students over the years, according to Judy Phair, Goucher's director of public information.

"Shifts were made so that people were let go where enrollments were consistently low," she said. "These were very tough decisions. Nobody enjoyed this." Each professor was given a year's notice, Phair said.

At the same time, Goucher beefed up other programs and established new majors in communications, management, and computer science. In addition, the college launched a fund-raising campaign that brought in $14.6 million.

But the AAUP, which no longer has a chapter on the Goucher campus, said the college could have explored options other than dismissing faculty members. The group also maintained that Goucher failed to give Chapman a fair hearing to challenge her dismissal.

The five other colleges censured by the AAUP at its 69th annual convention this week were: American International College in Massachussetts; Auburn University in Alabama; Morehead State University in Kentucky; Sonoma State University in California; and the University of Idaho.