WHEN WILSON ELKINS arrived at the University of Maryland, it consisted mainly of a big-time football team to which some academic courses were loosely attached. As for the quality of those courses, the place was on the verge of losing its accreditaion. That was in 1954. Dr. Elkin's first act as president was to moderate the obsession with football - something that he could do more gracefully than most scholars, since he himself had played quarterback for the University of Texas. Then came a sharp and sustained improvement in the quality of the faculty.

Within a decade, the university had begun to acquire a real measure of distinction. The outstanding example was the physics department, but performance in several other fields was not far behind. Today, Maryland is having it bothways; national rankings in basketball as well as football are not something the Terrapins are exactly casual about. But by most measures of academic quality, Maryland probably also stands among the top dozen public universities. In the history of every big university there is one figure who was the builder and, at Maryland, that has been Dr. Elkins.

Like many of the people who have played that role, he was an aloof administrator and often heavy-handed. It was fortunate for both him and the university that Maryland never became much of a center of student radicalism. Confronted with demonstrators, Dr! Elkin's first impulse was usually to call the police. At many universities, the tumult of those years drew the administration closer to the students. At Maryland it seemed to work the other way, and the administrators became more remote. But perhaps that inevitable at an institution where, within 22 years and one president's tenure, the enrollment had shot up from 15,000 studebnts to 77,000.

In the broad reach of American social history, the great achievement of Dr. Elkin's generation has been the massive expansion of access to education. The United States has gone further than any other country in the world, with the single exception of Canada, to put college within the reach of its children. More Americans are enrolled in colleges and universities today than were attending high school in 1954.

The university has now announced that Dr. Elkins will reitire next year. The remarkable thing about the University of Maryland, in the years of his presidency, was the dramatic improvement in its academic quality while it was simultaneously growing at such great speed. There have been querulous souls who argue that letting more people into the universities will debase academic standards, as though there were only a fixed quantity of education to be parceled out. The experience of Maryland points the other way