George Mason University announced yesterday it will hire well-known anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, in the latest step of an aggressive campaign to use more than $5 million to attract 20 star professors in the next several years.

Bateson was hired by George Mason's Board of Visitors under terms of a bequest from the late Northern Virginia businessman Clarence Robinson, who instructed the state-supported school to hoist itself up the academic ladder by hiring "first-rate people who will pull the university along," in the words of Senior Vice President J. Wade Gilley.

Bateson, 47, who teaches at Amherst College, was hired for one semester a year at $40,000, just under the national average for a full-year salary for a professor.

Her salary will be paid from interest earned by the $5 million Robinson bequest, matched by state funds.

Bateson, who plans to write during her semester off, will begin work in 1989, and is the 10th Robinson professor to be hired.

The professorships, which are aimed in part at improving the school's humanities program, mark the third phase of the Fairfax County university's unusual drive to market itself by building up selected academic disciplines, rather than trying for across-the-board consistency.

First came its emphasis on public policy issues, including the hiring of economist James Buchanan, who later won the 1986 Nobel prize. High-technology followed, including establishment of the nation's first school of information technology.

The results so far have won wide publicity, but also produced grumbling among professors whose departments are not in the spotlight.

Even in today's increasingly competitive market for prominent professors, where six-figure salaries and plush working conditions are no longer blinked at, the George Mason Robinson chairs, which pay up to $96,000 a year, are extraordinary jobs. More than 800 candidates have applied since they were advertised three years ago.

"We've had a flood of inquiries from people in endowed chairs at some of the best universities in the country -- Ivy League, Big 10," boasted Gilley.

George Mason, whose reputation so far lags behind its considerable ambitions, has drawn Robinson professors to its campus south of Fairfax City from institutions such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia.

The deluge of applications comes even though -- or, perhaps, because -- the Robinson professorships are very different from the usual endowed chair at a high-prestige institution.

Most American universities lure prominent scholars by promising them staff and facilities for their research, and assigning them a light teaching schedule, perhaps one graduate course a year.

At George Mason, the Robinson professors teach two undergraduate classes a semester, about average for a senior professor, and have to make do with the young university's shortage of space and support staff.

"They don't want famous people who fly in and fly out and lend their name and don't participate," said Bateson, who has turned down other recruiting offers. "They want participation."

In return, the Robinson professors are promised freedom to design their own courses, trying new ideas that range across scholarly disciplines usually separated by tradition and turf-consciousness. Playwright Paul D'Andrea, for example, taught a course on humanities and science that offered equal amounts of mathematics and literary criticism.

University President George W. Johnson describes the school's ambition as a top-to-bottom transformation that will produce the "education of the future" for undergraduates.

Physicist James Trefil, a Robinson professor who was recruited from the University of Virginia after 17 years there, recalled being told on a visit to George Mason that "no one will ever tell you that we don't do things that way here. It's a chance to try something."

George Mason is taking another unusual step in hiring several Robinson professors of English, philosophy and art history at a time when the humanities are struggling for recognition nationwide.

Enrollment in humanities programs plummeted in the last two decades as students flocked to job-oriented majors, and humanities professors command lower average salaries than people in hot specialties such as computers or engineering.

Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said she believes the decline has bottomed out, and a few universities even report booming enrollment in humanities courses. "I do find an interest in hiring liberal arts graduates that seems to be new."

"There's an increased understanding that the business world, for example, is full of subtle and complex problems and that subtle and complex thinking is required . . . . George Mason is wise to tap into that," Cheney said.

Bateson said she was intrigued and curious when a faculty member from George Mason -- "an institution I'd never heard of" -- called her last October and suggested she apply for a Robinson. One attraction for her was the newness and enterprise of George Mason, which began in 1957 as a branch of the University of Virginia and is now the fastest-growing state university in Virginia.

Like other Robinsons, she was drawn by the freedom the job offered to teach what she wanted to teach and to try new projects reflecting her interests in anthropology and public policy.

"This program is going to recruit a lot of people who have been very creative but who don't fit the standard definition," Bateson said.

Bateson is known not only for her anthropological work but also for her memoir of her parents, who studied primitive tribes in the Pacific and East Indies.

Several Robinsons interviewed recently said the salary offers were generous, but not enough to bring them to George Mason without the other attractions of the job.

Most of the Robinsons were brought in after approaches from university faculty members or references from well-known scholars who were asked to suggest candidates.

Some candidates have turned down George Mason because it does not have old-line prestige, but university officials say the growing number of "big catches" will put future applicants at ease.

Roger Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and activist who has been a visiting professor at George Mason for two years and will become a Robinson professor next spring, said one of the draws in his case was Roberto Marquez, a specialist in Caribbean and Hispanic literature whom he met after Marquez came to George Mason last year.

The first batch of three Robinson professors -- philosopher Thelma Lavine, Marquez and Middle Eastern scholar Shaul Bakhash -- were hired in May 1985 with the promise of trying something new at a new university.

So far, several Robinson professors said, they are moving toward their goals but recognize it will take time to achieve them.

"One can't get everything done as fast as I'd like," said D'Andrea. "It's a question of momentum, of critical mass, of getting things building. I think that's happening. It certainly isn't a matter of having all my dreams fulfilled . . . . So far I see a lot of interest and good will. We'll see if it all comes together."