In the heyday of campus protest 15 years ago, students at the University of Maryland treated some issues with utter gravity. Explosive demonstrations against the Vietnam War prompted state officials to call in the National Guard, and student leaders voted to burn in effigy then-Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew over a $90 tuition increase.

But times have changed on the gracious, Georgian campus.

A few weeks ago the student body, whose 38,000 members make it the seventh largest in the nation, elected as its president "King Tom II," a candidate whose foremost campaign pledge was to construct a beer-filled moat.

Farcical campaigns are nothing new on campuses across the country; a cartoon character was elected three years ago at the University of Texas in Austin.

But rarely are such candidates voted into office. And on the College Park campus, the election of junior English major Tom Cooper -- who uttered nary a serious word during the campaign and admits that his only government experience is a stint as treasurer of his sixth grade class -- has stirred a variety of responses.

Some students and faculty members are laughing; others wait nervously in hope that the "Monarchist Party" regime will get serious suddenly as it begins deliberations on how to spend a $700,000 budget. And many from the two camps are questioning the state of student government: Will the gains of the 1960s and 1970s be lost to a new generation that takes its power lightly?

"The student government association is at a crossroads," said William Salmond, director of the university's student legal aid office. "If nothing is salvaged this year, there will be a referendum next year on whether SGA should be abolished."

A number of other campuses, taken over temporarily by unconventional candidacies, eventually have returned to normal. Several years ago, students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison elected the "Pail and Shovel" party, a label illustrative of the "sandbox" nature of student government. The new president dotted the campus with plastic pink flamingos and decorated Lake Mendota with a copy of Lady Liberty.

At the University of Texas, students elected "Hank the Hallucination," the creation of a local cartoon artist. "It was just people being collegiate," said Texas student officer Jody Scheske. "Everybody got a kick out of it, and then we got serious."

Nationally, student government is alive and sober serious, say some campus observers.

"These flukes happen every so often," said Tom Swan, president of the U.S. Student Association, a student lobbying organization. "Predominantly, students who get into student government positions take it very seriously."

He cited recent student activism in support of divestment in South Africa, arms control and sanctuary for Central American refugees.

While student governments did gain power two decades ago, Swan said that recently there has been a "whittling away" of student rights by college administrators. Some, he said, are reimposing the in loco parentis concept of parental authority over students. Other campuses are convening committees that haven't met in 15 years to deal anew with student protest.

On the Maryland campus, administrators appear to be relaxed about the Monarchists' victory.

"Let's wait and see," said university President John Toll. "The Monarchists have a delightful sense of humor. They may in practice perform their duties in an appropriate manner."

Others argue that because student officers have advisory power only, the difference between a serious and not-so-serious candidate is academic. The Student Government Association, in addition to delivering the traditional student services such as campus entertainment, recommends to a committee of administrators how budget funds collected from student activity fees should be divided among about 70 campus organizations.

Some students describe the Cooper victory as a successful protest vote against ineffective student officers of the past.

"It was the students' way of saying, 'We're fed up with it, student government is a joke,' " said Dave Carrodine, a 20-year-old junior.

Cooper, for example, assessed his predecessors as "a lot of young bureaucrats out there making a little resume' for themselves." His professional goal, he says, is to go to flight school after graduation. Cooper, who says he maintains just below a B average in his studies, is on reserve duty with the Marines.

Student interest in the campaign was apparently at a peak. The runoff election that put Cooper into power Nov. 20 drew almost 3,000 votes, a record. Cooper got 1,646 votes to Mark Williams' 1,298.

Even Cooper's predecessor, Kim Rice, supported Cooper's candidacy. But she disagrees that previous officers have been ineffective. "Students don't realize how much SGA accomplishes," she said. "They get more than they realize."

Cooper's opponent in the runoff said he sympathizes with the frustration students were trying to express.

"It's sad it had to come to this . . . . It takes away from credibility," Williams said. Despite public appearance, he said, Cooper is "capable" and "not as goofy as he projects himself to be."

Cooper does not worry about a loss of credibility. "The joke is the all-important thing right now," he said. "The students enjoy it, and the administration doesn't mind it. It keeps us fresh without all the bickering."

Cooper, sworn in last week wearing a robe and crown, acknowledged that "there is a point at which all joking must stop." But he will not say exactly when that will be.

Administrators report that Cooper has attended official functions in a coat and tie, not a robe, and has uttered not a word about the beer-filled moat. Nor has he followed up on other campaign recommendations: that test answers should be handed out before the tests, and that the houses of College Park residents who complain about noisy fraternity houses should be bulldozed.

"The monarchy is a metaphor for him," said Kevin Kruger, assistant director of campus activities. "It's his signal that they have a sense of humor and they do not want the SGA to get bogged down in internal politics.

"They've got some learning to do" because they know little or nothing about the mechanics of student government, Kruger said. But, he added, Cooper "strikes me as a fairly serious person."

Salmond, who serves as a legal advocate for College Park students, believes that the recent elections reflect an institutional struggle between student leaders and administrators. There is an inherent resistance to recognizing students as consumers with a legitimate interest in their room and board rates, tuition and academic services, he said. As a result, student government leaders are given little real power.

"The student government association is set up to fail," he said. "For a student government to be basically ineffective makes life for administrators much more cozy."

Students, he said, "have watched the erosion of respect to student government . . . . It's going to take bold and imaginative and tenacious student leaders if that issue of credibility is going to be raised again."