Edward M. Davis, a former senior IBM executive, said that he was "in a high part of the learning curve" to describe his first days as the third president in three years of the Center for Innovative Technology.

In the vernacular of his technical training, the new president's remark was a simple way of saying he is still learning the ropes at the state- and industry-financed corporation in Fairfax County that has been beset with criticism about its mission and performance and charged with having ineffective leadership.

Some are convinced -- while others hope -- that Davis will provide a steady hand and guide the agency into a future unmarred by the kinds of problems that have cramped it since its inception in 1984. A pet project of then-Gov. Charles S. Robb, the center was supposed to boost Virginia's economy through a partnership of high technology firms and public universities.

"I really believe {Davis} is going to make a strong imprint," said John W. O'Malley, an associate dean at George Mason University who, as a former Bethesda-based IBM executive, said he "interfaced" with Davis on various projects. "I suspect he would be able to communicate technically very well at the universities," said O'Malley, a CIT director. "He looks like one of them."

The question for Davis will be whether he can define the role of CIT in a way the state can understand, a question that has been raised over the years by a wide range of business and political leaders.

For example, state Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Fincastle) has long opposed the center and said he remains unclear about its mission. Emick's district is in the southwestern part of the state, an area hard hit by unemployment.

"I want to watch {CIT} for the sole reason that it is a great place to lose a tremendous amount of tax dollars," Emick said. "I hope it proves to be a place where ideas can be developed and transferred to areas of the state where high unemployment remains a real problem."

So far, CIT has received $50 million in state funding. One of its challenges is to demonstrate that there will be a payoff for that kind of expenditure. Davis' supporters believe him unusually well qualified to be a broker between industry and the state universities.

During his 29 years at IBM, Davis translated research into marketable products. He rose from a low-level engineer's job at IBM in 1958 to become a vice president who most recently headed the company's data systems division, a billion-dollar manufacturer of large computers.

The 53-year-old Davis is an award-winning inventor and self-professed computer hacker who assumed the $100,000-a-year CIT post last Wednesday. In his view, the center is "a very intriguing experiment" which has been misunderstood and misrepresented.

"CIT's main objective is not to attract high tech industry to Virginia, at all. That's not the major purpose," Davis said in a recent interview. " . . . CIT's main purpose is to encourage entrepreneurism, the initiation of new technology and the sustaining of quality jobs in industries existing already."

Some feel the center has shifted from broad-based research into a more narrowly defined role of creating economic development, in part to quiet critics such as Emick.

CIT "has become centered on the total economic development of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I don't think it was clearly focused on that from the very outset," said George Johnson, president of George Mason University and a member of the CIT board. "It had to find a sharp focus for its role. I think it's done that."

"I think its problems lie behind it," Johnson said.

State Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Vinton), a key member of the House Finance Committee, believes the new CIT president will primarily focus on "fitting the pieces of the puzzle together" because of his business background.

Cranwell sees CIT as a research center and as a clearinghouse to "place basic industry in contact with institutions of higher learning."

"The worst thing we can do with CIT is speculate it to death," he said. "I think it is something Virginia needed to do, particularly if it's going to keep pace on high-tech development."

A similar view is held by Northern Virginia Community College President Richard J. Ernst, whose college was awarded a $225,000 grant from CIT to improve the economic performances of small and medium-sized businesses.

Of CIT's role, Ernst said, "Initially that was still kind of nebulous . . . . Now, it's more applying research to new technologies. Not just research for the sake of research. The mission is focused on research for the sake of process and product development."

Ronald Carrier, the president of James Madison University who recently left CIT after serving one year as interim head, said Davis "is almost perfect for the job as far as the commercial aspect. He's a brilliant researcher. No one can survive at IBM unless you can produce something."

Davis holds eight patents, concerning electronic devices and circuitry, and his resume is full of awards and degrees from renowned schools.

Some believe it will take every bit of Davis' inventiveness to lessen suspicions that have swirled around the center since it began.

The center's first president, Robert Pry, resigned in March 1986 after 15 stormy months in which he was criticized for poor administration, a lack of political sophistication in dealing with legislators and university presidents and excessive secrecy over how CIT was spending state funds.

Pry was replaced by Carrier, who was in office when a consultant said last spring that the center was neglecting the "needs and views of industry."

Concerning criticism about too much pure academic influence at CIT, Davis said, "it's clear that CIT started with the principal focus on the university . . . . I wish to broaden that to use other methods in addition to university research."

Davis said that most of the money and the staff now is being poured into university research, efforts that will not have a short-term payoff and that should not be expected to do so.

He said one of his objectives will be to nurture small and medium-sized industries by improving their manufacturing techniques and by providing them with an information network to know where to go for help.

As for complaints about the center's secretiveness, Davis said that CIT appeared to have a "fortress mentality" in the beginning, which he believes has since changed. At the same time he said secrecy is necessary when the center is arranging to work with a business so industries won't shy away.

"It is the process of making the marriage and not the marriage which needs a shroud of secrecy," he said.

For now, Davis said he is going through the trauma of working with a company of a much smaller scale. At his most recent IBM job, he managed a staff of about 20,000. At CIT, he manages a staff of 30 people. But Davis said these are exciting times.

"The potential is unbelievably good," he said. "The concept is excellent. The execution may not have been. The execution in the future will be my execution. We'll be able to tell on that."