ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 25 -- College presidents throughout Maryland turned out en masse at a Senate hearing tonight to laud the legislation dearest to Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- the revamping of the state's higher education system.

But legislators challenged the presidents' sincerity, questioning whether they had been coerced into endorsing the measure or were supporting it in hope of getting more money for their schools.

"I can't help but feel this proposal is motivated more by additional funds than what it actually says," said Sen. Raymond E. Beck (R-Carroll). "Sometimes I get the feeling it could have a title page, a preamble, a conclusion and a phone book in between and you guys would support it."

Their skepticism was heightened by a published report this week that one of the staunch supporters of the legislation, University of Maryland-Baltimore County Chancellor Michael K. Hooker, had told members of his faculty that he had been instructed by the Schaefer administration to speak out in favor of the bill, although he had reservations about it.

"I do what the governor tells me to, so I will speak on behalf of the bill as written," Hooker was quoted in a Baltimore Evening Sun article as saying at a faculty meeting.

Today, Hooker said he had been misunderstood. "I am here of my own volition," he told members of the two Senate committees, Budget and Taxation and Economic and Environmental Affairs. Hundreds of educators tonight attended the first major hearing on the higher education bills.

But legislators appeared unpersuaded. "I had the impression there might have been a little duress involved and some marching orders," said Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel).

Schaefer's higher education package, the centerpiece of his legislative agenda this year, would consolidate 11 of Maryland's 13 public colleges and universities under a single governing board. It would disband the 12-year-old State Board for Higher Education, replacing it with a new state commission to coordinate all facets of higher education with less control over colleges' budgets and "missions," but greater power to determine curriculum for schools.

Schaefer also is proposing a tuition savings plan and is seeking to change the way state money is allotted to community colleges.

Tonight, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, the plan's chief architect, urged senators to reassemble the legislation, which was carved into four bills this week by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's). "If higher education falls down the rung on the ladder, it is gone for a number of years," Steinberg said.

But committee members repeatedly questioned whether the bills would accomplish what their supporters say they will.

Legislators asked whether the proposed governing method would give too much power to the leader of the enlarged University of Maryland system, whether it would give the new state commission enough control over schools' missions, and whether it was wise to leave out of the new system two schools -- St. Mary's College and Morgan State University -- as the legislation proposes.

Their doubts were echoed by members of the state higher education board. In the board's first strong denunciation of Schaefer's plan, its chairman, William R. Snyder, said the new commission would be weaker than the present board.

The new system, he said, "will encourage confused claims for authority and combative relationships" among the state's various higher education factions.

The legislators' main qualms, however, dealt with whether the plan's supporters actually liked its contents or whether they just wanted more money for their schools. "If the funding mechanism is worked out, is this bill really neccessary?" asked Sen. Decatur W. Trotter (D-Prince George's).

In testifying for the measure, Allen L. Schwait, chairman of the University of Maryland Board of Regents, said, "The compelling idea of this entire process is to get a new level of advocacy and a new level of support." "That's the principal reason we are supporting this."