George Mason University, the once pint-sized commuter school charging hard the past four years to transform itself into a state university of national acclaim, has taken another stride in that direction by establishing a university press.

"It is a step," said Averett S. Tombes, dean of the graduate school.

"It is clearly a move to bring recognition to the university. One cannot deny the value of having a university press."

The press' first scholarly volume will be published this week and appropriate for the occasion, the book will be a collection of lectures on George Mason--the American revolutionary who prepared Virginia's Declaration of Rights and most of the state's constitution--entitled "The Legacy of George Mason."

The initiation of the press will include a reception, candlelight tour and 80-person dinner at Gunston Hall, Mason's home in Fairfax County, scheduled for Saturday.

Howard R. Webber, a publisher at the Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Co. who will give the reception's keynote address, said George Mason's press would help magnify the school's integrity and important scholars.

"There's a clear relationship between scholarship and publication," Webber said.

"We do notice, not without exception, that the great universities have a press."

After two years of discussing the idea of a university press and looking at other university presses, Tombes decided to get the presses rolling this year.

The printing will be done by Associated University Presses in East Brunswick, N.J., but the university will select the manuscripts to be printed.

"We want our press to obtain a good reputation," Tombes said. "We feel initially that we seek a sound reputation in the middle Atlantic states and as the university grows and develops a national reputation, so will the university press.

"But we are certainly realistic in that you don't do that overnight," Tombes said.

To obtain top-quality material nationwide, George Mason's game plan is to undercut competing university presses by eliminating a down payment authors usually make to cover publication costs.

"It will be very important to us to talk to prospective authors and try to encourage those who might submit manuscripts to another university to allow us to look at the manuscript," Tombes said.

There's no money in this publishing venture for George Mason. What the university gets out of it is the glory and reputation of having its name on scholarly books.

An author's royalties are agreed upon between him and the printer, which will take in any profits or losses.

"A university establishes a press not for making money but for the distribution of ideas," Tombes said.

The university's cost will be the operation of an office for selecting manuscripts--secretaries, manuscript reviewers and public announcements.

"That means we don't have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in (printing) hardware," Tombes said.

George Mason University Press' publication schedule for the first year will be six books. Beyond that, Tombes said the volume of annual books will "number close to a dozen," one being a collection of lectures on George Mason to be given for the next nine years.

The manuscript selection committee will seek works from its scholars and others nationwide on subjects related to the university graduate school's emphasis on policy sciences, high technology and performing arts, Tombes said.

"But we will publish good histories, good biographies, all of which fall under the category of good publications," Tombes added.