Jerry C. Lee, the president of Gallaudet University since early 1984, has announced his resignation to become a vice president of a major furniture manufacturing firm.

The company, Bassett Furniture Industries Inc., whose headquarters are in Southwestern Virginia, was founded by the family of Gallaudet's board chairman, Jane Bassett Spilman. Her husband, Robert H. Spilman, is president of the firm, which reported sales last year of $422 million.

Lee, 45, was vice president for business affairs at Gallaudet, the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf, before becoming its president.

He had held a succession of business positions at the university since 1971.

"I've completed what I set out to do at the university," Lee said yesterday in an interview, adding that Bassett "made me an offer I just couldn't refuse."

Lee declined to disclose his salary at either Gallaudet or Bassett. However, two years ago his university salary was reportedly $85,000 plus use of a house and a car. A statement filed by Bassett with the Securities and Exchange Commission said the salaries of its 17 vice presidents ranged last year from $100,000 to $145,000, plus bonus and stock option plans.

Lee will be one of five vice presidents reporting directly to the company president.

"Some people might think the chairman of the board is a Judas for having the {university} president come to work for her firm," Jane Spilman said. "But everyone knew that Dr. Lee would only stay as president for three to five years . . . . This man is a businessman and it was very obvious that he was going somewhere. Thank God, Bassett Industries was able to attract him."

Lee worked for General Motors and Commercial Credit Industrial Corp. before coming to Gallaudet.

As president of the university, he boosted enrollment, trimmed per-pupil costs, which had been criticized as too high by congressional committees, and admitted the first three undergraduates with no hearing problems last fall.

Although the 123-year-old university is a private, nonprofit corporation, it receives 82 percent of its funds from the federal government. The appropriation this year is $62 million, including $19.5 million for elementary and secondary schools it operates for about 560 deaf students on its 99-acre Northeast Washington campus.

Last fall, the university had 1,657 undergraduates, 396 graduate students and 153 nondegree students. It awarded 153 bachelor's degrees in May and 115 graduate degrees.

Yesterday, Spilman praised Lee, who became president after the forced resignation of W. Lloyd Johns after three months in office. Lee "restored our credibility with the Congress and improved the academic standing of our students," she said. "There is no one who could have done here what he's done."