A plan favored by key state officials to overhaul Maryland's system of higher education has created widespread fears among administrators of the University of Maryland at College Park who say the changes could erode the quality and stature of the flagship campus.

In an unusual action, 14 of the campus' 16 deans have written a memo to Chancellor John B. Slaughter conveying their "continuing and deep concern" over a proposal, which appears to have won favor in Annapolis, to consolidate the state's colleges and universities under a single governing board.

That consolidation, the deans and faculty say, could siphon away state funding for College Park's research and graduate programs and lead to a rival flagship campus in Baltimore.

"We believe that this proposal poses a significant threat to the present hard-won excellence of this campus and to its potential for future development," the deans wrote in the two-page, confidential memo that one faculty member called "rather extraordinary."

Yesterday, the Campus Senate held an unusual forum, featuring a panel of the state's top education officials along with an aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, to explore the implications of college reform on College Park.

"There is very strong feeling on the campus," said one top College Park administrator, who asked not to be identified. "I can honestly say I don't know anyone who really is supportive of the consolidated governing board."

The concern has spilled off campus, prompting politicians and some legislators from the Washington suburbs to caution that any college reform plan must be careful to safeguard the special role of College Park. With about 38,000 students, College Park is Maryland's flagship campus -- that is, the largest public college campus in the state and the only one that has a comprehensive range of research and graduate programs.

"It is vitally important for us to protect what is one of our major, major resources," said Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, who teaches government and politics courses at the university. "We have to make sure not to harm the interests of College Park, which are almost synonymous with the interest of Prince George's."

State Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), one of three key legislators who met with faculty leaders last month, said, "Their feeling is the flagship campus would lose out in the long run. That's a realistic observation of what might happen."

The fervor at College Park also has cast a regional tinge on the debate over college reform, because many professors and administrators at Baltimore area colleges have said they would welcome the proposed changes, reasoning that they would increase their schools' stature and state subsidies.

Specifically, the College Park employes are reacting to a proposal that would cluster all 13 of Maryland's four-year public colleges and universities -- including the five campuses that compose the current University of Maryland -- under a single governing board.

Initiated by John S. Toll, the University of Maryland president, the proposal was signed by the chief administrators of 11 of those schools, including Slaughter, the College Park chancellor. It has since been endorsed by Schaefer, who has said he wants the General Assembly to adopt a new college system during its upcoming session.

The single University of Maryland Board of Regents would replace a college system, created in 1976, that features four governing boards for the 13 schools, in addition to a state agency that oversees them and the community colleges, private colleges and for-profit trade schools. Critics of the present system, including the governor, say the arrangement has proven unwieldy and has allowed an unnecessary duplication of academic programs at neighboring campuses.

But at College Park, professors and administrators fear that such a board would help improve the prestige, array of academic programs and, in particular, the state subsidies for Maryland's smaller colleges and universities -- at the expense of College Park.

"The view here is College Park is not adequately supported in the first instance," said Richard P. Chait, executive director of the National Center for Postsecondary Governance and Finance, part of a consortium of schools that is housed at College Park. "To create a system where it is simply one of 13 competitors is not a pleasant prospect."

Andrew D. Wolvin, the Campus Senate chairman, said faculty and administrators became alarmed after consulting with their counterparts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin at Madison -- the main campuses of their state university systems.

Both states switched during the 1970s to a single college governing board that is similar but not identical to the one being considered for Maryland. Now employes at those schools complain that their campuses have been "leveled," Wolvin said.

That prospect is especially troubling, College Park faculty members and deans say, because their school already receives less state aid than some other schools in Maryland and than the flagship campuses in other states.

The other, related fear is that a new college system would lead to the creation of a major, public research university in Baltimore -- a university that would be a rival for money, good faculty and research grants.

Last summer, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg said he wanted the 1988 General Assembly to merge three Baltimore area campuses into a single university with the stature of College Park.

Since then, he and other state officials have backed away from that idea, saying merely that whatever new governing board is created should quickly study ways to improve the availability of graduate training in Baltimore.

Still, fears linger at College Park about the possibility of a rival campus in Baltimore.

"How in earth could one think starting another major university would work?" said Alan Pasch, a philosophy professor who is chairman of the editorial board of a faculty newspaper. "It is just wholly unrealistic."

Both Toll, the university president, and aides to Schaefer are seeking to allay the fears.

"I see both the importance and the autonomy of the College Park campus increasing under the proposal" to consolidate the colleges under a single governing board, Toll said last week.

Laslo Boyd, Schaefer's education aide, told members of the House Appropriations Committee at a hearing in Annapolis last week, "It is clearly the governor's view that College Park is the comprehensive research institution in the state and needs to be supported."

Slaughter, the chancellor, said he did not regret having signed the proposal for a consolidated governing board, noting that Schaefer has said repeatedly that he considered a new way of governing colleges a prerequisite for giving the schools more state money.

A few local legislators agree that the changes could help the campus in the long run. "I really don't think they have a hell of a lot to worry about," said Del. Charles J. Ryan (D-Prince George's), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who is one of the legislators working with the Steinberg to design the college-reform bill. "The people involved in doing this stuff have been very supportive of the University of Maryland becoming a major research institution."