A statement by Gov. James S. Gilmore III's education secretary that the boards of trustees at Virginia's public colleges have a duty to follow Gilmore's agenda brought disagreement yesterday from several Republican-appointed trustees.

Education Secretary Wilbert Bryant, speaking Wednesday to Gilmore's Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education, said the college trustees' first loyalty should be to Gilmore (R) and not to their schools' presidents.

Bryant called on the trustees to oppose proposals from their university presidents that contradict Gilmore's goals of cutting college costs and making schools more accountable for their students' performance. "As appointees of the governor, [the trustees] are the only control he has to ensure our institutions carry out their duties in a manner that is consistent with his policies," Bryant said.

Board members from several of the universities disputed that view of their role. They said that although they share Gilmore's fiscal concerns, they also must look after the interests of their schools.

"We have an obligation to both the citizens of the state and the students and faculty of our university to use our best judgment," said William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard magazine and a member of George Mason University's Board of Visitors.

"I am a strong believer in accountability, but I am also a strong believer that you should not try to micromanage institutions from Richmond or even from the level of boards of visitors," said Kristol, who was appointed to the GMU board by the previous governor, George Allen (R). Overall, Kristol said, "Virginia colleges are doing a pretty job" of keeping costs down and quality up.

Bryant's speech was the latest salvo in Gilmore's campaign to hold down increases in the universities' budgets and strengthen their focus on basic academic subjects. Gilmore's commission is considering changes in the state's system of funding the colleges, and the governor has promised to attend more university board meetings to ensure that his priorities are being followed.

College trustees interviewed yesterday said they are neither the governor's servants nor rubber stamps for their schools' presidents.

"I assumed I was appointed to provide my best judgment on the governance of the college . . . and in the end I personally intend to make my judgment on the basis of my own view," said Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state who was appointed by Allen to the board of the College of William and Mary.

Bryant's most provocative comment, as reported in yesterday's Richmond Times-Dispatch, was that the college trustees are "foot-soldiers of the governor."

"I didn't get drafted, I volunteered, and I think my rank is a little bit above that of foot soldier," Eagleburger said.

David Adams, Bryant's special assistant, said the education secretary did not use the term "foot-soldiers" in his speech to the blue-ribbon commission. Louise Seals, managing editor of the Times-Dispatch, said that the newspaper stands by the quote and that the paper had not received any complaint about it from Bryant.

Elizabeth A. Twohy, a University of Virginia board member who owns a concrete company in Norfolk, said she shares many of Gilmore's views but added, "I also don't feel that the governor has a gun to my head." Twohy was appointed by Allen and recently reappointed by Gilmore.

House of Delegates Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk) said the state's public colleges are not executive branch agencies and therefore are accountable chiefly to members of the General Assembly, who set the yearly budgets for the institutions.

"He's micro-managing our universities," Moss, a Virginia Tech graduate, said of Gilmore.

Staff writer R.H. Melton contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Education Secretary Wilbert Bryant angered some college trustees.

CAPTION: Gov. James S. Gilmore III wants to cut costs and increase accountability.