A prominent and controversial sociologist who was active in the social and civil rights crusades of the '60s is waging a new battle in the name of academic and political freedom.

This time the battleground is one of the Northeast's most liberal private institutions.

Dr. Richard A. Cloward, who spent 25 years writing and teaching at Columbia University's School of Social Work, has been rejected by Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., for a post in its prestigious Heller School of Advanced Studies in Social Welfare.

Boston University recently decided not to hire him for a similar position.

Cloward has taken his case to the American Sociological Association's committee on freedom of research and teaching, which has begun an investigation.

Cloward claims he was rejected because of his politics, his activism and his age, 52. He says he wants a chance to address the members of a Brandeis ad hoc review committee that allegedly attacked the quality of his scholarly works during secret deliberations.

In July the eight-member committee, representing different department, split down the middle on Cloward's nomination. The committee met behind closed doors and its proceedings have not been made public -- a standard procedure increasingly under fire in recent years at universities in the United States.

"The committee's proceedings are secret. You are fighting a phantom. For that reason it isn't fair, Cloward said. The person who is protesting can't find out the grounds on which he's been rejected. There are no procedures for addressing your accusers."

The Heller School faculty asked university president Marver Bernstein and Dean of Faculty Jack Goldstein to approve Cloward's nomination in spite of the split vote. Bernstein refused. Now the faculty has asked Bernstein to release the review panel's report; that request is pending.

Meanwhile, letters from Cloward's colleagues around the country have flooded Bernstein's office, and a student petition drive is under way to persuade the administration to reverse its position.

Support also has come from the National Association of Social Workers, whose board of directors wrote Bernstein urging him to reconsider Cloward's nomination.

Heller School dean Stewart Altman, who has strongly supported Cloward's nomination to the faculty, sided against him on the matter of academic freedom. "I don't see anything in the process that was illegal or biased," Altman said. "The decks were not stacked against him. This isn't an academic-freedom issue, it's an employment issue. This isn't a legal process, it's an employment process. I've never heard of an applicant who gets to set the rules." Altman went on:

"There's no question, this was a bad decision.We still want him on the faculty. But to say this is an academic-freedom question just isn't so."

The Brandeis vice president for public affairs, Amran Ducovny, would say only, "The process as appropriated by the faculty and board of trustees for tenured appointments was used in this case."

In the case of Boston University, where Cloward had been recommended by both the sociology department and the school of social work for a joint appointment, the professor says the recommendation died in President John Silver's office.

Steve Wagner, public relations director for Boston University, said the administration would have no comment on Cloward's case: "It is the university policy that all faculty applications are confidential.