Faced with reductions in state funding, George Mason University President George Johnson announced yesterday that the school will be forced to eliminate 115 positions, cancel faculty salary increases and consider reducing student admissions and furloughing employees in an effort to trim costs.

In an address to faculty and staff at the university's Fairfax City campus, Johnson said the school will have to cut $8.3 million in spending, or 11 percent of its operating budget.

The shortfall represents "a potential catastrophe for George Mason," Johnson said. "We will be operating at the lowest staffing level in the history of the institution with a support budget at least $6 million below the threshold of adequacy," he said.

Mason and Virginia's other 14 state-supported colleges and universities have been forced to cut spending because a lagging economy has pushed state tax revenue $1.4 billion below expectations.

Officials of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's administration are scheduled to outline funding cuts to state government agencies today, and Johnson's speech was the first time he has said how George Mason would respond to the budget problems.

Johnson said a 10 percent cut in the school's administrative budget will take a toll on equipment, books and building and ground maintenance, and said he hoped to eliminate the 115 positions through a hiring freeze rather than through layoffs.

George Mason faculty members will be asked to forgo a 2 percent salary increase that was to take effect in January, Johnson said. A salary increase of 3.1 percent scheduled for Oct. 1 of this year will be allowed to stand.

Johnson emphasized that if layoffs become necessary, teaching faculty would be the last positions cut. At the same time, however, Johnson asked the faculty to consider taking unpaid leaves of absence as a further measure to avoid layoffs.

"If attrition will not solve our problem, we will consider furloughs as an alternative to layoffs," Johnson said. "Were each of us to go on a short unpaid leave, we could preserve 17 positions for each day of a furlough."

In a speech that had an upbeat tone, and at times even bordered on joviality, Johnson exhorted staff and faculty members to view the university's current difficulties as a way to trim its excesses, by moving away from a traditional hierarchical organization.

"I have been trying to do this for 10 years," he said. "Maybe a budget crisis will finally give me a leg up on some success."

Johnson said an attempt would be made to make up the shortfall in government funding with money from other sources, "by devoting a great deal more attention to our alumni, by sharpening the focus of our program development, by broadening our circle of corporate relations."

Several other universities also have announced plans for achieving the state-mandated cuts. William and Mary College officials said this week they will eliminate 13 teaching and 24 support staff positions through attrition and layoffs.

Johnson said he is considering reductions in student admissions, but declined to say how many openings might be eliminated. The school has 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

"You don't need as many faculty if you don't have as many students," he said.

Staff and faculty members reacted to the speech with quiet resignation, but were generally supportive of the president's actions. "I think that people need to toe the line," said Cindy Kaufman, coordinator of university activities. "I don't think he's asking for a lot from us. The president sees the whole picture before he starts taking away the pieces."

Don Boileau, chairman of the Department of Communication, said he had been discussing and planning for today's announced budget reductions and has already cut back some part-time faculty work.

Department officials also have discussed ways to make course work in the department less labor-intensive, with fewer graded papers and more written exams.

"They'll still have the same course content," Boileau said, "but there won't be as much writing."