As Prince George's Community College marked its 40th birthday this year, its trustees prepared to hire the school's first new president in 27 years--a successor to Robert I. Bickford, whose name had become almost synonymous with the Largo two-year college. The school had grown to 35,000 students and undergone dramatic demographic changes during his tenure.

After a process infused with political intrigue, the trustees settled on an outsider, Ronald A. Williams, a Barbados-born administrator of the Community College of Philadelphia. Williams, 48, a onetime Olympic sprinter, arrived on campus in August, and he hasn't stopped running since.

He's been meeting with major players in the county's political, educational and business establishment and proposed a series of initiatives to give the school national stature and to raise its profile locally.

"I'd like to gradually move us into a more central role in addressing central problems and countywide issues," Williams said.

"Part of the strategy of being so visible, so early, is a calculated risk, to gain the attention of policy-makers and have them recognize the institution has the capacity to respond to some of the problems we face."

Williams touts the unsung instructors at the Largo campus and talks enthusiastically about the "roles scholars can play in the county. We have an opportunity to be a kind of intellectual hub, to begin the process of discussing some of the concerns of the county. Over time, I'd like to make this institution the center of these conversations."

To broaden the school's reach, Williams, who has bought a home in Bowie, wants to open full-scale campus centers in the northern and southern ends of Prince George's, as well as a Latino site in the Langley Park-Hyattsville area. He also wants to lower tuition, to make the school more accessible to students, "many of whom come from very strained circumstances," he said.

These are admittedly ambitious plans, and costly. He is counting on the county in 2000 to chip in: $500,000 to start the Hispanic site and $200,000 to lower tuition by $30 a year. Still new to his job, Williams is undaunted by fiscal constraints. "The place is to my mind exciting, not simply the campus, but the county," he said. "There's a kind of energy here that's really fantastic."

CAPTION: Prince George's Community College President Ronald A. Williams arrived on campus in August.