The war in the Persian Gulf has escalated tensions on college campuses to levels not seen since the Vietnam War era. At the University of Maryland at College Park, for example, the past several weeks have been filled with pro- and antiwar demonstrations and other forms of political activism. For the most part, these activities have proceeded with little notice by the media.

There was one incident at College Park, however, that received considerable attention. It began when a few residence hall administrators encouraged students to remove banners and flags from dormitory buildings. The media immediately picked up on the incident, and it became a topic for the day in the metropolitan area. Included in the commentary was a column by Charles Krauthammer {op-ed, Feb. 8} in which he appropriately takes the university to task for an egregious violation of First Amendment rights.

It is of concern, however, that Krauthammer's article and others insinuate that the individual mistakes on the part of a few -- mistakes readily admitted and quickly corrected -- are reflective of the broader policies and practices of the institution as carried out by literally tens of thousands of faculty, staff and students on a daily basis.

This simply is not the case. In particular, it is disturbing that no one writing on this matter pointed out that numerous banners, flags and slogans (pro- and antiwar) were and remain on display and unchallenged in many locations across the campus.

It is also of concern that some of the commentators tended to overstate -- even misstate -- the facts. For example, Krauthammer is incorrect when he says, "This {the University of Maryland administration's} discovery of the First Amendment occurred exactly one day after the student newspaper broke the story on its front page." Such hyperbole maligns the institution's ardent commitment to the protection of freedom of expression.

The institution's most recent policy statement on free expression, as endorsed by the Campus Senate in March of 1990, states among other things that "every member of the campus community has an obligationto promote free expression in the university. No member shall prevent such expression."

As another example of its commitment to First Amendment principles, the university never has refused to allow a forum for controversial and "unpopular" speakers. During a well-publicized incident of an especially controversial external speaker, one whose presence on this campus elicited strong negative reaction from many, including several commentators in the media, I wrote an open letter to the student newspaper, the Diamondback, on March 23, 1990. In it, I said, ". . . no matter how abhorrent the views expressed by an individual, I believe that one of the most cherished principles of an academic institution is, and always must be, the protection of open freedom of expression for that individual. The right to free speech for all is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and is absolutely essential to a free society."

But the most extreme and disturbing example of reporting hyperbole is Krauthammer's insinuation that the university's "repression" is akin to McCarthyism in the 1950s. This is a particularly curious analogy from someone who has taken a human error in judgment by a few relatively junior administrators in a single location on the campus and selectively used quotes only from these same individuals to draw far-reaching pejorative conclusions about the policies and practices of an entire institution. The only words that come to mind are, "Have you no decency, sir?"

This incident aside, the larger issue raised by Krauthammer is that in the name of "diversity" and "sensitivity" universities strive for "political correctness" and thereby compromise standards and suppress non-conforming ideas. This is a legitimate concern.

As our society becomes more segmented by race, gender and other classifications, as our universities reach out, as they must, to incorporate segments of our population heretofore underrepresented, how are we to both develop a supportive nurturing environment and avoid restrictions on freedom of expression?

In my view, the answer is to be found by turning to the fundamental purpose of a university -- education. Universities must spend greater effort on educating members of their community about the practice of academic inquiry and self-disciplined discourse and place less emphasis on policies that limit freedom of expression. University communities must rededicate themselves to the ideas espoused by John Locke, who urged us to be willing to learn from evidence, to listen to our neighbor's views and to be skeptical with regard to our own ideas. We must incorporate in our curriculum and in our culture the philosophy of John Stuart Mill so that our students learn to subject their dearest beliefs to the rigors of open debate.

In sum, universities must be the place in our society where we voluntarily expose our faiths to the irritant of doubt and learn to accept the pain of alien views for the wisdom they may teach us. Our recent incident notwithstanding, this is what we are about at College Park.

The writer is president of the University of Maryland at College Park.