China watchers track each other's movements with the same interest, suspicion and envy they devote to the Chinese. I have been a China watcher for 20 years and I remember precisely when I first became aware of a new member of the clan, a Stanford graduate student named Steven Mosher.

Mosher had written a small piece about population control in a southern Chinese village for the Asian Wall Street Journal in August 1980. I can no longer recall what Mosher said, only that I disagreed with it and thought I could have done a much better job. Like any good China watcher, I resolved to put everything he wrote thereafter to a severe critical test.

When Mosher found himself in serious trouble two years later after rough brushes with the Chinese government and with his own faculty, I congratulated myself for my prescience. But his trouble became so bad -- unprecedented expulsion from the Stanford doctoral program, official Chinese charges of illegal conduct, roaring controversy over his role in exposing Chinese abortion practices -- that I was forced to write about him.

In the process, I began to wonder if his fate had been as richly deserved as I first thought. I began to suspect that academic prodecures and habits might be wasting some of irrepressible talents like Mosher's. Scholarly etiquette and insecurity seemed to be making American universities less interesting and creative than they could be.

We have had our fill of academic skirmishes over unpopular trends of thought in the last two years. Radicals on the Harvard Law School faculty have been held up to ridicule. An attempt by the conservative Accuracy in Academia to monitor and comment on the political biases of college professors has been greeted with fiery denunciation. Stanford itself has been touched with disputes other than Mosher's. Former Vietnam POW and Congressional Medal of Honor winner James B. Stockdale said the university dropped a popular course he taught in part because his views were not welcomed by younger department members.

But Harvard Law professors, conservative activists and war heroes can take care of themselves. How many unknown graduate students have found their work dismissed and their careers ended because of unconventional personal habits or eccentric ideas that do not pass muster with their thesis advisers? How many have the energy of a Steven Mosher, or the good fortune to find themselves touching on an issue of interest to the media, in order to gain public support for their side?

On Feb. 24, 1983, at age 34, after eight years of developing a fluency in Cantonese and Mandarin and building a record of often-commended anthropological research, Steven Mosher was expelled from the Stanford graduate program in anthropology by an 11-0 vote of its faculty. This action makes him virtually unemployable as an academic. He had gained notoriety for exposing forced abortions of Chinese women in their third trimester. His report helped persuade the Reagan administration to cut off funds for Chinese population control.

After his expulsion, Mosher charged Stanford with buckling to Chinese government pressure. Conservative U.S. columnists and academics condemned Stanford for acting on what they said was liberal political bias, rather than concern for the truth.

Stanford faculty said the action had been taken because of unspecified Mosher activities that endangered his Chinese research subjects and because he had persistently failed to respond candidly and consistently to faculty questions about his work.

The details were clouded by the doubtful objectivity of Mosher's principal accuser, his ex-wife Maggie So, and by Stanford's refusal to disclose supporting evidence that it said might harm Mosher's research subjects. As the controversy dragged on, I found my grip on the case slipping away, so quickly were new accusations replacing old ones.

For instance, the Chinese had accused Mosher of taking a vehicle and driver without authorization into Guizhou province, a poverty-stricken neighbor of Guangdong that had been off-limits to foreigners for years. I could not believe that an American as knowledgeable as Mosher would not have realized what a daring act that was. He had been arrested and sent back to Guangdong after writing an apology, just as I and every other reporter who ever dreamed of sneaking into Guizhou would have expected. An initial Stanford report charged him with "testing the limits of the Chinese security system, an act that, as an exchange scholar with the obligation to protect the reputation of the program, he should not have contemplated."

But Mosher produced evidence that the Chinese had, unaccountably, stamped his travel permit with the character "che," meaning travel by car through the province was permitted, rather than the usual plane ride over it. Given the unusual access he had already been given to the records and daily lives of rural Chinese, he might be forgiven for thinking the authorities were ready to grant him one more favor. And for that matter, in his final letter reaffirming Mosher's expulsion from the university, Stanford President Donald Kennedy rejected the initial criticism of Mosher's trip and only chided him for failing to inform Stanford promptly of his arrest.

Kennedy's 30,000-word final report was full of other instances of Mosher apparently changing his story, ignoring ordinary rules and procedures and keeping his advisers in the dark. It added up to a persistent "lack of candor" that had made it impossible to trust his work, Kennedy concluded. Yet the validity of that work -- including two favorably reviewed popular books on life in China, "Broken Earth" and "Journey to the Forbidden China" -- was never questioned.

Mosher has returned to Fresno, the California central valley city where he grew up as the son of a roofer, to scratch out a living of speaking fees and book advances while trying to find some way -- in court or otherwise -- to win his doctorate and resume his career. He lives in a $66,000 house bought with a Cal-Vet loan. His second wife, Huiya, 33, a teacher from Taiwan, is now studying for her masters degree in education. When not on speaking tours, he does repairs on the run-down house, plays basketball at Cal State Fresno and from evening until early morning works on books.

Over three years he has gathered an impressive amount of support, particularly from editorial writers, non-anthropologists and conservative columnists. Through it all, Stanford has stood firm, insisting at the very least on its right to set its own academic standards without outside interference from any court or government.

As I juggled the various charges and countercharges from seemingly reasonable men and women on both sides, I began to wonder if the university had fallen into a position that really did not advance its interests, or those of academic freedom.

Since the modern university became a cornerstone of human progress at the end of the Middle Ages, academics have wrestled with conflicting demands of order and truth. Brilliant men have often chafed under rules designed to test their theories and ensure their eventual acceptance in society. Useful compromises have sprung up.

Now, as tenured positions and doctoral program spaces have become scarce, many students and professors wonder if the emphasis on winning favor from above, on protecting programs rather than ideas, might not be upsetting the usual balance and freezing out interesting eccentrics like Mosher.

Students who knew Mosher from the time he arrived at Stanford in 1976 thought he behaved differently from most graduate students. Long before he alienated his faculty, one acquaintance said, he was annoying his peers with elevated assessments of his own work and continual efforts to curry favor with professors.

Mosher denies all this, but it is clear he came to Stanford on a track very different from his competitors. He had joined the Navy at age 19, left to finish college at the University of Washington in a grueling five quarters, then went to Hong Kong on his own to study Mandarin Chinese and picked up the local Cantonese dialect on the side. His facility with both languages was remarkable -- one important reason why he was picked as one of the first American scholars to be allowed independent field research in rural China.

One graduate student who knew him then and is familiar with China insists Mosher's outspoken attacks on Chinese abortion policy "seriously misrepresented the issues in the case." Anthropologists, the acquaintance said, "have a kind of moral responsibility to make understandable to Americans things that are very exotic to Americans, and one of those things are that people in other societies have other values. . . . In China, they are not concerned about the morality of abortion. They just want to have children and the government may not want them to. . . . I think it is irresponsible for an anthropologist to ignore that set of constraints and differences and attack the abortion issue in the same way it is seen in this country."

But in the five years since Stanford anthropologist Arthur Wolf first heard Chinese officials' bitter complaints about his student's activities in Guangdong, the case against Mosher has come to settle on his dealings with Stanford, not Peking. By last Sept. 30, as I read through Kennedy's lengthy final letter and appendix to Mosher, it was clear that Kennedy, through his own analysis of the case, through advice of lawyers, or both, had decided to discard everything the Chinese had said and most of what ex-wife So had said about Mosher. He relied instead on the exasperated testimony of his own faculty to justify the expulsion.

Mosher had failed to inform his advisors of changes in his academic plans and his trouble with the Chinese. He had changed the focus of his dissertation research without consultation. He had changed his account of events from one letter to the next.

That seemed a reasonable basis for punishment to me. But I soon changed my mind about the need for so severe a sanction as expulsion after coming across the story of Philippe Bourgois.

Bourgois is a Stanford graduate student who ran afoul of the anthropology department in ways very similar to Mosher, but his story ends quite differently.

Bourgois had gone to Honduras in November 1981 to look into the possibility of a dissertation about Salvadoran refugees there. His faculty advisers had warned him against any actions that might endanger his Salvadoran informants or himself, but he could not resist an offer to cross the Lempa River and visit war-torn El Salvador itself.

Two days later, government troops attacked the rebel area where he was staying and cut off the escape route to Honduras. Bourgois spent a week dodging bullets and mortar shells, seeing Salvadoran civilians shot dead right beside him. After his escape, he returned to the United States to testify before Congress and publish a long article in the Outlook section of The Washington Post. Noting how many civilians, and how few rebel soldiers, died in the fighting he saw, Bourgois concluded, in less than dispassionately academic fashion, "There's something fundamentally flawed with the strategy behind this war."

Like Mosher, Bourgois' departure from his stated academic goals resulted in swift official expressions of displeasure. I could find no evidence that the Salvadoran government ever complained about Bourgois' unauthorized excursion, but CIA officials criticized his article (and were upbraided by one congressional committee for doing so). Bourgois quickly returned here and met for two days with his dissertation committee and the then-anthropology-department chairman, Clifford Barnett.

Stanford faculty members, declining to be identified, said the student apologized for defying faculty instructions. His contrition, the faculty members said, helped them settle on a punishment far lighter than Mosher's. Bourgois was placed on probation for a term with orders to write another dissertation proposal having nothing to do with El Salvador or Honduras. Bourgois did as he was told, and received his doctorate last August.

Mosher thinks the Bourgois case proves the leftist bias of a faculty willing to expel a student who criticized a Marxist state while only suspending briefly a student who criticized a non-Marxist state.

Yet it is hard to portray the Stanford anthropology department as a nest of leftist ideologues. With some difficulty, I persuaded a few department members to describe their political views. One of those who voted against Mosher was a conservative Republican who voted for President Reagan.

It was at this point that I became convinced it was not Moshers' politics that did him in, but his demeanor. Bourgois threw himself on the mercy of his dissertation committee. Mosher apologized only for failing to disguise the faces of the pregnant women he photographed. On all other counts he refused all efforts to coax a contrite statement from him.

And demeanor is important. There was no way for the Stanford faculty to separate their personal feelings about Mosher from their decision to expel him. It is their case that he abused their trust.

At the same time, focusing on Mosher's abuse of trust is their case's most obvious flaw. Outside observers moved to take Mosher's side echo this feeling. Why didn't Stanford judge him on the basis of his written work, like any other graduate student?

"He has misrepresented some things, but these are minor matters," said Ernest van den Haag, a Fordham professor of jurisprudence and public policy. "PhDs should be granted on the basis of the scholarly work of the candidate."

"From what I have seen of Mosher's work he is head and shoulders above other candidates in this field," said Howard Hurwitz, a former St. John's University professor who now serves as president of United Professors for Academic Order, an organization formed in reaction to what its members saw as the politization of university campuses during the Vietnam War.

If there is any hope for a resolution of the Mosher dilemma short of a full-scale court case which could further embarrass Stanford, the Chinese and Mosher, it is the whisper here of a better punishment for this particular crime. One of Mosher's faculty defenders, who requested anonymity, summed up the feeling of many: "He's a very strange guy, a very devious young man," he said, "but he has written two reasonably good books. . . . They should have given him the degree, but just not given him a job in the department."

In an exchange of letters with university officials the last few months, Mosher has been exploring the possibility of forming a dissertation committee under a special program that might be able to give him a doctorate in China studies. He would still be frozen out of anthropology and probably could not teach here. But it would save time and money and give one talented scholar a chance to test his ideas and methods -- as jarring as they might sometimes be -- somewhere in the American academic market.

In the medieval universities where our notions of academic freedom began, students sometimes paid their professors directly and would cut off payment, or even riot, if they felt they were not learning what they should. It was an intimate form of education that put the learned not so far above the learning, and avoided the modern bureaucracies and legal precedents that make an equitable solution to the Mosher case so difficult.

But just as eccentric young politicians are allowed to peddle their ideas to all who will listen, with the judgment of their worth made by voters rather than other older politicians, wouldn't it also suit our universities to give the next generation's thinkers a little more slack? Finding a place for Steven Mosher might give many other people more room to grow.