Richard Gillin was visiting Oxford University, mulling his future as an English professor, when news arrived that Douglass Cater, a former White House aide with ties to the Washington power establishment, would be the next president of Washington College, the small liberal arts institution where Gillin had taught for the past 10 years.

"I was thinking about leaving the college. It seemed rather hopeless financially and intellectually. We were here on the Eastern shore, cut off. The college was caught in the doldrums," said Gillin of the period just before the announcement of Cater's appointment, 2 1/2 years ago.

"But then when I returned it was like Rip van Winkle coming out of a dream. I left with an uncertain sense of the future and returned to find a resurgence of energy. There was a renaissance of spirit."

Gillin, like many of his colleagues and students at Washington College, credits the campus' vitality these days to Cater, a man with a resume as long as the Chester River flowing near the 202-year-old college, which only two years ago was facing decreasing enrollments and an uncertain financial ledger.

With a nose (and ego, say some) for the kind of glittery events that attract recognition and big dollars and with a head for academic reform, Cater, a 61-year-old former aide to President Johnson, has managed to do in two years what few other presidents of small colleges have done in several. At a time when many of them are bemoaning hard times, Cater is sowing the seeds of good times at a liberal arts college that, until his arrival, had a small profile.

The signs of a promising harvest are everywhere. Enrollment in the freshman class is up 23 percent, the first increase in years. Fund-raising has nearly doubled. Foundation grants have quintupled. Buildings are popping up, and last week, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger's name joined an overflowing list of political and media celebrities who have stumped or raised funds for the college.

Although there have been a few bumps during his two years at Washington College, Cater, for the most part, represents the future and survival of the thousands of small, independent colleges that dot the country. With the baby boom diminishing and without the buttress of state support of a college like the University of Maryland or the gilded name and alumni of one like Harvard, today's embattled, independent colleges must turn to men and women whose leadership puts their college on the map and into the address books of foundations, people with money, as well as high school students looking for places to enroll.

Kissinger, who normally commands $25,000 for an appearance, said he agreed to be the keynote speaker at a dinner in Baltimore that netted $230,000 for the college as a favor to Cater, a longtime friend.

"There are clouds of dust rising everywhere from his efforts here," said Nathan Smith, chairman of the history department and a professor at Washington College for nearly 30 years. Among the academic changes sparked by Cater are mandatory writing tutorial sessions, an honors program, a freshman seminar focusing on contemporary moral and social issues and an innovative computer program that next year will make terminals available to most incoming freshmen.

But these fast-paced changes also have brought some complaints. The criticisms typically are grumblings that perhaps Cater is moving too quickly, interceding in the academic independence of professors too deeply or bringing too much glamor to an old college that has survived on conservative practices for more than 200 years.

"There are some who think he has brought too much D.C. to the college, and there are others, professors, who think he should be more like the head of the hospital and stay out of the doctor's office . . . and only make living conditions better for the doctors," said one college official.

"Our school tends to be a very conservative, one and when change first comes people don't tend to be receptive to it," added senior Amy Seifert, editor of the Elm, the college newspaper.

Cater acknowledges that he wants to move quickly and make a number of changes in the way the college operates. Washington College, he said, may be seeing signs of survival, but with an enrollment of 725 students -- smaller than many high schools -- it is by no means out of the chopping-block woods.

"There are those who would say having only 800 students is not viable," said Cater.

A compact man with a ruddy complexion and beakish nose, Cater readily says he had not heard of Washington College when a friend, who was a member of the college's board, called and suggested that he apply for the presidency.

A member of the Washington scene for decades, the Harvard-educated Cater had been, in addition to his stint as a special assistant to President Johnson, Washington editor for the magazine The Reporter, the author of several books, including "Power in Washington," and a visiting professor at several universities. At the time of the call, Cater had just stepped down as the vice chairman of the British weekly newspaper The Observer, and he was still associated with the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, an international think tank of business executives and world leaders.

"I was in a funk," said the white-haired Cater, dressed in a wide striped suit picked up from his days in London. "I didn't know where I had been or where I was going . . . . I find I can only devote a certain percentage of my life to dealing with the abstract, and I was doing that all the time at the Aspen Institute. I love talking about war and justice and peace, but I also need a certain amount of protein in my diet: How am I going to balance the college budget? How am I going to get this foundation money?

"I took the job because I wanted to do something to make my own mark," added Cater, sitting in his office near a needlepoint portrait of George Washington, who gave 50 guineas to help establish the college. On the walls to the left are photographs of Cater with President Johnson and letters from the president who Cater says was one of his three mentors.

"In the White House one could feel many heady things, but you were just part of a process," he said. "It didn't really matter if it was you or someone else. Although I was always a high-level staff man, I had never been in a job where the buck stopped with me."

After he accepted the college presidency, Cater's one-time ignorance quickly turned into a one-man mission to spread the word about the 104-acre Washington College, or as he said, "to put it on the map."

"The college has so much potential. I hope that within a reasonable time the college will have earned, and deserved, a national reputation for being an undergraduate college of distinction. It doesn't mean trying to compete with a Haverford or an Amherst or a Wesleyan on their terms. But it does mean that on our terms we have earned the respect of the alumni, national educators and our students," said Cater.

To this end, Cater has called on his longtime friends and acquaintances. The list of guests and new board members who have visited Washington College or lectured on its behalf during the past two years reads like a Who's Who of America's political, intellectual and media.

In addition to Kissinger, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Treasury secretary William Simon have delivered speeches, as have Lady Bird Johnson and CBS' Roger Mudd. Bill Moyers, also with CBS, made an appearance, and so did educator and philosopher Mortimer Adler, former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John W. Gardner, former SALT II negotiator Paul C. Warnke, authors Lewis Thomas and John Barth and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin.

Since his installation, Cater's calling on his friends seems to have helped the college's financial ledger. Although the college's endowment is still small -- just under $10 million as compared to the more than hundreds of millions of many Ivy League colleges -- gifts from members of the college's board have risen nearly 665 percent during Cater's two-year tenure. Cater persuaded Eugene Casey, one of Maryland's wealthiest builders and the husband of a college alumna, to give $5 million.

Many students say the extra attention the college is receiving is a plus. Student government president Melissa Combes, a senior from Huntington, N.Y., said, "I remember sitting in class in high school and everyone was filling out where they were going to go to college. It was always Yale and Amherst and Harvard, and then there I was writing Washington College. Everyone always said, 'Where's that?' "

"All I can say is that as far as I know I'd rather be graduating from here, now, with all that's happening, than four years ago when it wasn't," said Combes.

Editor Seifert, a senior from Perry Hall, Md., said that although some faculty and students complain that Cater is away too often on fund-raising trips, "Now, at a time when liberal arts schools are in danger, we need a president who is more concerned about college at large in the world."

Perhaps the most telling endorsement of Cater's stewardship is from the faculty, who by nature are not quick to praise an outsider entering their world.

"Since the arrival of Mr. Cater there has been a surge of energy among the faculty," said English professor Gillin. "We see a host of new programs and a host of new possibilities . . . . Intellectually, the college is a much more lively place. I feel much more stimulated. I feel pressed to read outside my field, to become more broadly educated . . . . Our workload has increased, it has probably quadrupled; there are new committees and new subcommittees and we are being streched to our limits to develop new programs. But I think it is [for] the benefit of students."