It was not exactly what University of Virginia founder Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

In a ceremony of academic pomp and pageantry, Robert M. O'Neil became the university's sixth president today -- a post that Jefferson thought his school could do quite nicely without.

But the selection of O'Neil -- former president of the University of Wisconsin System of Higher Education, author and law scholar -- is symbolic of the school's rise in recent decades toward national recognition, according to many at the school.

"Today we begin a new era in the life of the university," Rector Fred G. Pollard told 3,000 faculty members, students and scholars attending the inauguration.

"Our new president . . . brings . . . the strengths of character required to lead the University of Virginia into the next era of greatness."

Jefferson, who wrote in 1822 of his aim "to make the establishment the most eminent in the United States, in order to draw to it the youth of every state . . . ," would have joined in the applause.

In the last 30 years, many here say, the University of Virginia has stretched to fill Jefferson's ambitious vision. The school has received top ratings in national guides to colleges, including a 1983 Money magazine listing as one of the country's 10 best public universities.

Frank L. Hereford Jr., O'Neil's predecessor and the university's president since 1974, launched a capital campaign that netted $146 million as well as increased visibility. And early this year, admissions officers reported that applications for first-year and transfer spots topped 15,000 for the first time.

The selection of O'Neil, 50, is "a clear indication of how far this institution has come in the last three decades," said Staige D. Blackford, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. "It's gone from being considered at one time the 'country club of the South' to a national institution."

Unlike the university's previous three presidents, O'Neil has no ties to the school or to Virginia.

"It's significant, in a way, that the university did get this national figure, and did not reach in and get one of its alumni," Blackford said. "I think O'Neil is going to breathe some new life into this institution."

Today's ceremonies included students as speakers for the first time -- a signal, some said, that O'Neil may try to boost direct contact between students and his office.

Thousands of folding chairs sat wet and empty on the lawn between the white colonnades of Jefferson's original "academical village" while university administrators, Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb and delegates from 95 colleges and universities marched into University Hall, a 9,000-seat arena that dwarfed the crowd, but kept it dry.

The brightly colored hoods, sleeve stripes and tassels that mark academics by specialty and institution dotted the mass of black gowns like fallen confetti.

Beneath the banners of past athletic contests and a giant electronic scoreboard, Thomas Jefferson's name was invoked a dozen times or more and his ideals were cited by everyone from Robb to the university's student council president.

Robb noted that the school has had 58 fewer presidents than Virginia has had governors -- a tribute, he said, to the school's "singularity of purpose across eight generations." Jefferson's idea that the school should be guided by a faculty chairman, who served as the university's chief administrative officer, was in force until 1904.

O'Neil stressed the university's need to strive for international stature through overseas study and exchange programs and in faculty recruiting; many professors nearing retirement are foreign born, he noted, adding that the school must "recognize . . . how much we will miss the world view they have brought to us."

He also urged that the school redouble its efforts to encourage and support research and strengthen its links to the state through adult continuing education courses and closer ties with public elementary and secondary schools.

Back on the lawn, where stacks of firewood and a few hibachi grills sat outside the prized single rooms for seniors, a group of students spoke approvingly of their new president.

"He's very polite and very comfortable. I had fun talking to him; he's very warm," said Jason Knight, chairman of the university tour guide service, who attended a retreat with O'Neil, university administrators and other student leaders.

In the short time since O'Neil assumed the presidency Sept. 1, student council President Steven T. Clark told him at the inauguration, "You've already shown that Jefferson's ideals are yours as well."