Fifteen years ago the massive university campus here stood at the apex of academia, undeniably the leading educational institution in the West and perhaps the greatest publicly financed center for higher learning in the nation.

Today the University of California at Berkeley is a troubled institution, perennially short on funds, battered by the rising tide of California's tax revolt and fearful of a slide from the intellectual summit.

Heightening these concerns on the 30,000-student campus is the possibility of a new budget cutback that could range up to 20 percent of current spending levels if a sweeping tax cut initiative wins voter approval next June.

"We're already in solid state. We're not moving ahead as we once were," said Berkeley Vice Chancellor Ira Michael Hcyman. "If we get this [tax cut] initiative, I'll crawl under my desk. We'll have to start charging a big tuition, or this place is finished."

Across San Francisco, 50 miles to the south, Berkeley's traditional private school competitor, Stanford University, has not had to worry about Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13, other drastic revenue-cutting measures or the specter of decline. While Berkeley has struggled in the 15 years since the upheavals of the free speech movement, Stanford has seen its coffers bulge with private contributions and its academic stock rise to a position rivaling Berkeley's.

California's traditionally vigorous support of its public university has had few equals in the United States, and Berkeley has, appropriately, played an extraordinarily central role in the state's development. Ever since its establishment in 1873, the Berkeley campus has served as the cornerstone of California's intellectual community as well as the alma mater of much of the state's political leadership, including the current governor, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

In contrast, Stanford started out pretty much as a rich man's fantasy, the testament of Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon, U.S. senator and California governor to his only child, Leland Jr., who died of typhoid fever in 1884.Leland Stanford Jr. University opened in 1891, bankrolled by the elder Stanford y the elder Stanford and designed in palatial elegance on 8,200 acres of rolling countryside by Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York's Central Park.

For decades Stanford lived in the shadow of the greater public institution across the bay at Berkeley, ridiculed as "the farm," a rich boy's school, charming but largely irrelevent. But since the late 1950s Stanford has figured as a world class university by bolstering its faculty, attracting large research grants and building an elaborate modern physical plant. Today, some consider the rich man's whim the West's leading center of higher education.

"In 1965 Berkeley was a much more elite institution. Today it would be fair to say Stanford has come to outshine Berkeley. If you go to Berkeley it doesn't seem to assure you're among the best and the brightest any more," said Lewis Solmon, executive officer of the Los Angeles-based Higher Education Research Institute.

Solmon and other observers trace Berkeley's troubles to the incessant disturbances that rocked the campus between 1964 and 1973. Disgusted by disruptions, strikes and violent confrontations between students and police, some leading professors gave up on Berkeley and left to teach elsewhere. At the same time, the university lost much of its traditional support among the state's political and economic elite.

"The student revolt hit Berkeley harder and lasted longer than at other places," said sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, currently at Stanford after teaching at both Berkeley and Harvard. "There was a lot more division there, a lot of bitterness on the faculty. There's a sense of malaise among people at Berkeley. First [Republican Gov. Ronald] Reagan came in and they felt they weren't liked by the governor. When Brown [Reagan's Democratic successor] came in, they would get treated even worse."

It was Reagan, campaigning for reelection on a pledge to get tough with rioting college students, who began to cut into the Berkeley budget. Ever since, Berkeley -- long accustomed to 10 to 15 percent hikes in annual appropriations from Sacramento lawmakers -- has been forced to limp along with virtually no spending increases.

At the same time, the state had pushed a university expansion program which, at the turn of the decade, leaves the Berkeley campus as but one member of a nine-campus, 120,000-student statewide system. This expansion, some Berkeley observers claim, drew essential resources away from their campus. Between 1965 and 1979, Berkeley's share of the state university budget, now over $2 billion annually, dropped from nearly 20 percent to slightly more than 10 percent.

Under Brown's administration, the university has not fared well, particularly after the passage of Proposition 13 in June 1978 and the young governor's quick embrace of the tax-cutting sentiments sweeping California politics. Criticized repeatedly as the epitome of the spendthrift public institution, Berkeley during the 1970s has had to content itself with modest annual increases of about 7 percent, barely enough to keep the school in line with the inflationary spiral.

Brown's anti-university remarks -- he has said, for one thing, that university professors should not press for large salary increases because of the "psychic income" they receive from their jobs -- have demoralized many members of the Berkeley faculty. "The governor has really hurt us in public relations," said Berkeley Chancellor Albert Bowker. "He likes cheap shots."

Gray Davis, Brown's chief of staff, insists the governor has simply chosen to force the university to live within the limits imposed by the tax revolt and the ever-greater funding needs of state health and welfare programs.

"The problem is the university is out to lunch. They have been a little slow to adapt to a changing world," Davis said. "A decade ago the university had a blank check and there was no greater claim on the government's coffers. Now they just have to compete with other concerns. People have different priorities."

While Berkeley struggles against the political winds, Stanford continues to improve its financial position. Only briefly distracted by the campus revolts, Stanford has cultivated to great effect its already close ties to the state's conservative business community.

In a time of straitened finances for most universities, public and private, Stanford has been able to count on its wealthy alumni for support, including electronics tycoon David Packard, his erstwhile partner, William Hewlett, and oilman Jack McCullough. In addition, the school has profited enormously from the emergence of California's high technology industries which have, since the end of World War II, recruited research and management talent from the campus.

Stanford-trained engineers have played a crucial role in the development of "Silicon Valley," a corridor packed with electronics firms stretching from the campus 25 miles south to San Jose.

Frederich Terman, the university's leading electrical engineer in the 1930s and '40s, encouraged the development of close, almost symbiotic ties between Stanford and many of the highly profitable companies sprouting up nearby. At the same time, he pushed the development on university-owned land of a 700-acre industrial park (now joined by a shopping center) which today produces over $6 million a year in rental income for Stanford.

Throughout the 1970s Stanford's budget has grown at nearly twice Berkeley's rate. In 1972, Stanford embarked on a special $300 million, five-year fund-raising drive. Since then, the university's private gifts have swelled to over $40 million annually, a figure second only to Harvard's, while the school's endowment has reached an estimated $475 million. Yearly tuition of $5,500 has given Stanford additional financial security.

Much of this wealth has been sunk into improved facilities and faculty salary levels that help Stanford woo prominent professors from other institutions. A good physical plant and a prominent faculty have, in turn helped Stanford attract increasingly large research grants from the federal government.

Since 1974, Stanford's federal research and development funds have jumped an average of 11.4 percent, while Berkeley's have seen only modest increments. With $94.4 million in research money coming in during the current academic year, Stanford is now the nation's second largest recipient of federal research aid, behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At Berkeley, budget stringencies have seriously undermined the faculty pay scale, a favorite target of such political leaders as Brown, Reagan and Jarvis. Once considered among the better-paying universities, Berkeley now compensates its faculty members below national salary norms, says David Seller, chairman of the Berkeley Faculty Association.

Berkeley professors, according to recent surveys, average slightly over $30,000 a year, as much as $4,000 less than their Stanford counterparts. In some fields, such as engineering, Stanford's professors are reputed to be among the highest paid in the nation.

"Berkeley is not nearly as competitive in terms of the marketplace as Stanford," said Berkeley Chancellor Bowker. "We're not used to losing people, but we're losing them. It's tough to absorb these budgets at an institution like Berkeley and keep it a quality institution."

Bowker and other Berkeley officials, while stressing that their faculty is still one of the strongest in the country, fear uncompetitive salaries could lead to a long-term slippage in the university's teaching quality. This worry was underscored earlier this year when three former Berkeley professors, all hired away by other, better-paying institutions, won Nobel Prizes.

Free of the political pressures bearing down on the Berkeley budget, Stanford has improved its faculty over the years by offering high salaries, cushy offices and endowed chairs to prominent scholars. Today, Stanford is home to 12 Nobel Prize winners. Berkeley claims 10 Nobel laureats.

Stanford has enhanced its status by upgrading its already prominent professional schools. Stanford Law generally ranks third or fourth in national surveys, while the business school has emerged as the most highly regarded in the country.

The success of the professional schools, with their yearly harvest of promising alumni for the school's fund-raiser, has bankrolled Stanford's drive for excellence in the humanities, long dominated in the West by Berkeley. In the past decade, while Berkeley's humanities faculty has been frozen, Stanford's has grown by 3 percent.

"I like all those business and law people. I need their money whenever I want an endowed chair," said Herb Lindenberger, chairman of Stanford's department of comparative literature. "We have been able to improve our staffs in hard times while Berkeley has become increasingly, I'm afraid, a great historical museum."

As a result of these trends Stanford has, over the past 25 years, been able to drop its student-teacher ratio from 13 to one to 11.5 to one. Berkeley, caught in a hiring feeze while taking on more students, has seen its ratio soar from 14.5 to one to better than 17.5 faculty to one student over the same period.

Stanford has used its financial advantage to attract an increasingly higher proportion of the most talented graduate students. In 1979, for the first time, Stanford was the first choice of new fellows of the National Science Foundation. Sixty-three entered Stanford this fall. 13 more than closest rival Harvard and better than twice the number choosing Berkeley.

At the same time, Stanford, despite its steep tuition, has held onto its edge over Berkeley in the quality of its undergraduate students. Stanford's entering freshmen have consistently maintained a 150-point margin over their Berkeley counterparts in the combined math and English scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. And since 1945, Stanford has produced 45 Rhodes Scholars as against two for Berkeley. 1

Stanford, however, worries about the widely held image of its student body as overwhelmingly white and upper and middle class.University spokesmen are quick to point out that nearly 55 percent of Stanford's 6,100 undergraduates receive financial aid, while an aggressive affirmative action program has boosted black and Mexican-American enrollment. Each group now represents about 5 percent of the total 12,000 student population, and Stanford's recruitment efforts have won praise from black student leaders.

"There's really an intellectual commitment to [minority admissions] here," said Sibby Freeman, a black anthropology graduate student and copresident of the Associated Students of Stanford University. "Some people call this place a country club, but things aren't that bad. I think Stanford's done well in this area."

At Berkeley, though, there is deepening concern about the university's ability to serve the state's minority community. While Asian Americans make up nearly 20 percnt of the undergraduate enrollment, Berkeley's black student population has dropped by more than 20 percent during the last five years and now accounts for 3.1 percent of an undergraduate enrollment of 21,000.

The richer scholarship purses of private universities and resurgent all-black colleges have attracted many young black Californians who typically would have attended eight or nine years ago.

This downward trend frightens some Berkeley administrators who are convinced that California, home of 84 percent of their students, will have a black-Hispanic-Asian majority by the end of the century.

Student leaders say the school will be unable to educate this burgeoning population if the current $750 annual tuition is boosted by $1,000 or $2,000 to meet budget cutbacks in the coming years, as many here predict.

"If you're going to pull this $2,000-a-year tuition thing, why do it when the Third World people are coming up," said Tom Abote, editor of The Daily Californian, the Berkeley student newspaper. "Maybe the university is not willing to accommodate the Third World people with the same inexpensive education the Anglos benefited from. Maybe it's a luxury the state can no longer afford to have, this great shining university."

Under such conditions Berkeley officials regard Howard Jarvis' new tax initiative as something akin to the final assault of Attila the Hun on Rome. The Jarvis measure, if passed, would cut state income taxes in half and result, university officials predict, in a possible tripling of Berkeley's tuition as well as faculty freezes and firings.

The Jarvis forces deny that their measure would do any serious damage to the educational process at the university. "It's the same thing they said would happen with [Proposition] 13," said Harvey Englander, spokesman for California's Cut the Income Tax Committee. "It's not true. They're just going to have to start tightening their belts. They're just going to have to start working full hours. I don't know a professor who works 40 hours a week anyway."

But Berkeley Vice Chancellor Heyman insists the Jarvis initiative is nothing more than an attempt to destroy the ideal of the public university, to deny access to an inexpensive education of high quality for all Californians.

"We're going down a terrible collision course. It is a phenomena of pulling up the ladder and saying I'm aboard," Heyman said. "If [the new tax propositions] pass it would seem to me the ultimate expression of selfishness about education. It's scary as hell."