Harvard President Derek Bok today endorsed the acceptance of "tainted money" if it benefits the university, but said he would reject it if it were aimed at using the school for the donors' own nefarious ends.

The nation's wealthiest university is willing to overlook the unsavory behavior of some benefactors and take their money, said Bok, because "an institution will doubtless do more good by using such funds constructively than by forcing the donor to keep his money.

"The tangible benefits of using the money for scholarships or faculty salaries should overcome the more abstract, symbolic considerations that might lead us to turn down such benefactions."

In his third in a series of academic white papers on the moral responsibilities of universities, Bok also said Harvard would refuse gifts that "impinge on our academic freedom" and place the university in a position of "reaping the fruits of immoral activity."

Bok pointed out that former Harvard president James Conant rejected a gift from a Hitler confidant, partly because "he feared the gift had been proposed and specially publicized to use Harvard as an American base to spread approval of the Nazi regime."

Bok also turned dwon funds from the tyrannical regime of Greek Col. George Papadopoulos because "the gift was specifically designed to gain the good will of Greek Americans."

While recognizing critics' claims that accepting "tainted money is ignoble and unworthy of Harvard's ideals," Bok contends there is nothing morally improper about taking money from controversial donors.

"Is it possible to articulate reasons for refusing tainted money that outweigh the opportunity to use such funds to help discover a cure for some debilitating disease or to assist a worthy student from a poor family to obtain a Harvard education?" wrote Bok.

He noted that the university could be accused of "honoring immorality and legitimating unethical conduct" by naming buildings, professorships and scholarships after donors with questionable reputations.

"In practice, recipients of gifts and awards have regarded the use of a donor's name more as a way of acknowledging the source of the donation than as an affirmation of his moral character," he said.

"Students who accept the designation of Rhodes scholar do not believe that they are endorsing the racial and colonial views of Cecil Rhodes," he said. "And universities naming their buildings after celebrated entrepreneurs of the 19th century have never been thought to endorse the business methods of men whom Theodore Roosevelt once described as 'malefactors of great wealth.'"

There are, however, some cases in which universities should not use donors' names, Bok notes in one admitedly farfetched example:

"No university could accept a Hitler collection of Judaica or a Vorster center for racial justice or a Capone institute of criminality," said Bok.

Bok's comments are viewed as a reaction in part to a rash of protests both here and at universities across the country calling for divestment of stocks in firms doing business in apartheid South Africa.

Several universities this spring, including Yale Brandeis and Boston University, have acceded to the demands of campus protesters. Students here continue to press the administration by staging a moratorium on classes, rallying in Harvard Yard and picketing the president's office.

A group calling itself the Southern African Solidarity Committee also objected to Harvard's naming the library of the new John F. Kennedy School of Government after Charles Engelhard, who amassed a fortune in South African gold mines at the expense of black workers, his critics claim.

Last fall, protesters marred a meticulously staged dedication ceremony of the new Kennedy school, demanding that the name Engelhard be removed.

"The library was named after him because his foundation donated the money for it, and it was a part of the terms of the gift. It's that simple," said Ira A. Jackson, associate dean of the Kennedy school.

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, visiting Harvard, called the $1 million contribution by the Engelhard foundation "tainted money. . . blood money built on the bodies of blacks." Speaking at a Kennedy school symposium, he asked, "How can a university accept this at the same time they are preaching and teaching ethical government policy?"

Timothy S. Healy, president of Georgetown University, recently attacked Bok's arguments for political neutrality, saying, "It is obvious to me that Harvard's desire to lean backward to avoid public moral stances is not a posture suitable to Georgetown." CAPTION: Picture, DEREK BOK . . . benefits can outweigh scruples