George Mason University's announcement that a major bequest will finance a new public policy institute there has rekindled a debate that has troubled the academic community: Do the well-known, well-paid scholars hired to run such institutes really enhance the school's reputation and lead to better-educated students?

Many of the 20,000 students at the Fairfax County-based university, some faculty members and others say they expect to see little benefit from the bequest, which has been valued at $3 million to $20 million.

In recent years, the university has made headlines by attracting such stars as former federal judge Robert H. Bork, economist James M. Buchanan, a Nobel Prize-winner, and former Federal Reserve Board vice president Manuel H. Johnson Jr.

This month's gift from the estate of Shelley Krasnow, a longtime Fairfax businessman, would establish the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study with even more luminaries, and it could propel the school toward its desired position among the top-ranked universities in the country, GMU officials say.

But some in the Mason community say the university's strategy of luring a small number of big-name researchers with huge salaries amounts to little more than window dressing.

They add that it is particularly inappropriate at a time when state budget cuts have reduced some course offerings, frozen salaries and vacancies and turned off some parking lot lights. Further cuts may be imposed in the fall.

"Do you buy more and more big names or develop the university from the grass roots?" said John Stone, chairman of the department of sociology and anthropology. Stone said many on the faculty have come to believe "that the school has put too much emphasis on eye-catching names."

Most of the stars who have brought publicity to George Mason reflect the university's increasing emphasis on research, which directly affects graduate and law students -- one-third of the student body. Many well-known faculty members have limited teaching duties.

"We really seem to have a single standard of excellence, and that tends to be a research university," said Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization of colleges and universities. "You can't really argue with success."

Officials note that Scholastic Aptitude Test scores for this year's 2,500 freshmen average 1,063, up 31 points in five years.

The average pay for full-time faculty members has gone from $34,041 to $53,107 since 1986, and total research dollars pledged to Mason have risen from $8.6 million to $48.5 million.

Yet some question whether Mason's gains can be attributed more to the times and Northern Virginia's affluent, well-educated population than to publicity over the university's new scholars. And there is considerable support on campus for placing more emphasis on teaching, especially undergraduate teaching.

Many American educators "have lost the notion that the primary function of a university is to educate the next generation," said Lynne Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

George W. Johnson, GMU's high-profile president, defends the university's emphasis on research.

"The so-called dichotomy between research and teaching is a false one," Johnson said. "Our purpose is discovery . . . . That doesn't mean I want an ivory tower divorced from the affairs of the world."

One of George Mason's biggest recent successes is the acquisition of Manuel H. Johnson, the former Federal Reserve Board vice chairman who heads the university's new Global Market Studies center. He is paid $120,000 per year, with two-thirds of his salary coming from state tax dollars and tuition payments, and one-third from private donations to the university.

Johnson did not teach a class last semester and is not teaching one this semester. He plans to offer a graduate seminar next fall. Meanwhile, he said, he is running the center, doing research on international finance and writing a book.

The Global Market Studies center and the proposed Krasnow Institute are "what major universities, especially research universities, are all about," said Manuel Johnson. Students do benefit, he said, pointing to a master's degree program in international affairs he organized. Enrollment in the program this semester is more than 200 graduate students.

Undergraduates should concentrate on fundamentals, which are "preparing them to think about the questions we're dealing with" in the graduate centers, Manuel Johnson said. For George Mason to "compete with the Harvards and the Yales," it needs scholars "who do nothing but think. It's a benefit to society as a whole."

Some question whether the private gifts that fund a major portion of star faculty salaries are the best use of donations.

"I wish we could put {the money} toward new books at the library" or other pressing needs of the typical student, said Donald Coney of Fairfax, a student who works in the library.

GMU President Johnson notes that the university can use private funds only for purposes stated by the donors. He and other university officials say each star added to the university brings not only prestige, but also research grants, top-quality assistant professors and surging enrollment in the courses they teach.

Most of the affected classes are at the graduate level or in the law school.

The planned Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study will be a place where prominent scholars will gather, read, write and think -- with few restrictions and few students to distract them, university officials said.

"When I read about the $20 million, I thought, oh my gosh," said George Mason junior Lori Allan, of Fairfax. "Then I read the fine print" and discovered that the money is "for the big boys," Allan said.

Originally described by university officials as worth $20 million, the Krasnow bequest is primarily in the form of land which, without zoning changes, could be worth much less.

But regardless of the final number, the gift will "maintain momentum in the drive of this university to become a pioneering, prototypical university," President Johnson said.

GMU has an array of special teaching and research positions and related centers and institutes, some located away from the main campus in central Fairfax County.

The larger institutes have their own budgets, financed by a mix of state and private money, but some centers amount only to "one man and a filing cabinet," said university spokeswoman Helen Ackerman.

This year's university operating budget is $151 million, which does not include private donations but does include research grants, officials say.

One group of privately funded big-name faculty members is praised on campus -- the 16 Robinson professors, who teach about 1,500 undergraduates each year under a major bequest designated for classroom instruction.

"They have stimulated the cross-linking" between basic classroom education and the specialized centers at George Mason, said biology department chairman James Willett.

Some academic experts note that there are ways other than hiring big-name research scholars to build young schools such as George Mason, which began life as a branch of the University of Virginia and became independent 18 years ago. One is through sports programs.

Another is "by creating a reputation for a focus on undergraduate education," said Ernst Benjamin, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.

A few schools, such as New Jersey's Trenton State University, have found they can boost their reputations by cutting enrollment and raising standards, Benjamin said.

Mason junior Colleen McGuire, of Arlington, agrees. "Money doesn't make George Mason as prestigious as the quality of the students coming in," she said.

MARY CATHERINE BATESON: Anthropologist and linguist; full-time Robinson professor; annual salary of $93,912, $48,200 of which is state funds, $45,712 private funds.

ROBERT H. BORK: Former federal judge; part-time law professor; paid $12,500 per course, all from private funding.

JAMES M. BUCHANAN: Nobel Prize-winning economist; full-time professor; annual salary of $146,774, of which $76,500 is state funds, $70,274 private funds.

MANUEL H. JOHNSON: Former vice chairman, Federal Reserve Board; director, Center for Global Market Studies; annual salary of $120,000, of which $80,000 is state funds, $40,000 private funds.

SEYMOUR M. LIPSET: Prominent sociologist; full-time professor; annual salary of $139,000, of which $89,000 is state funds, $50,000 private funds.

JAMES MILLER: Former director, Office of Management and Budget; part-time economics and public policy professor; paid $4,000 per course from state funds.

STEVEN R. ROSS: Chief lawyer, House of Representatives; part-time law professor; paid $10,500 per course, all from private funding

ROGER WILKINS: Author; former assistant attorney general; full-time Robinson professor; annual salary of $95,707, of which $48,200 is state funds; $47,507 private funds.

SOURCE: George Mason University