FBI agents have been quietly contacting officials at American Universities about students and visiting scholars from China, apparently to gather intelligence information and prepare for possible defections.

The unannounced FBI telephone calls and visits appear part of an effort to cope with the enormous growth in the number of Chinese scholars and students -- now about 5,100 -- on U.S. campuses. Officials at Harvard, Wisconsin, Stanford, the University of California at San Diego and Oberlin College say they have been contacted by the FBI.

Most officials did not want to be identified because they feared adverse reaction from the Chinese and university colleagues opposed to any FBI presence on American campuses. Several said they feared that disclosure of specific FBI contacts might harm relationships between Americans and visiting Chinese who would feel spied upon, and perhaps hurt cultural and educational exchanges which have been growing between the two countries.

Merle Goldman, a history professor at Boston University who does research at Harvard, said she was visited at her office in Harvard's East Asian research center about a year ago by an agent from the FBI's Boston office.

"There was a Chinese delegation visiting universities in the area at that time. He asked me if knew anything about them and I said I didn't. Then we just talked about China." Goldman said the agent spoke Chinese and had previously attended one of her lectures.

"He just wanted to talk about what was happening in China," said Goldman, whose specialty is post-1949 Chinese intellectual dissent. "He seemed pretty interested."

A Stanford professor, contacted in China, said "you get routine phone calls. . . . People who would like to drop by to see if anything interesting is going on."

He said agents never specified what they were looking for, but he assumed they were interested in subversive activity. He always told them he knew of nothing to discuss and that would end the conversations, he said.

He was most recently contacted by the FBI last fall, as was an official at Oberlin. The bureau contacted an official at San Diego early this year. a

The FBI contacts appear to be scattered and as much concerned with developing a relationship with the person contacted as with gathering information. The campus officials said agents asked for general information on visiting Chinese scholars and students, and in only one case suggested a reason for the contact -- to anticipate any defections.

A State Department official familiar with U.S.-China relations said such FBI checks are "standard operating procedure." Goldman, whose husband is an expert on the Soviet Union, said she knew of similar FBI checks on visiting Russian scholars.

A professor at one Washington-area campus said the local landlord for a visiting Chinese scholar was questioned by the FBI. The professor asked that her university not be identified because the scholar had told her of the incidence in confidence.

A teacher at Wisconsin interviewed by an FBI agent in mid-1979 said she was asked if it was not "a little dangerous to have so many Chinese communists on campus?" The teacher, of Chinese descent, said she told the agent, "What do you think the Chinese are? Even a communist is not a monster, he is a person."

The university officials contacted by the FBI said they had answered what they considered general questions about their Chinese scholars and students.

An official at the University of Southern California said it was his impression that universities have occasionally received similar requests for such information about visiting scholars from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, but Chinese scholars currently outnumber those from other communist nations on U.S. campuses.

Officials at nearly all universities said it was their policy to direct government officials asking information about specific foreign students to the general student directory, or to refuse to give out any information if the student had so requested.

FBI Director William Webster asked for funds in 1978 to allow better surveillance of increasing numbers of visitors from socialist countries, particularly China.

The interviews with university officials indicate no FBI campaign to survey formally every campus, but rather to try to find cooperative faculty members who could warn them if a Chinese student or scholar was considering defecting.

"We want to find out if there are any adjustment problems, any political problems," one campus official said an agent told him earlier this year. "We don't contact the individuals themselves, but if there is a problem, then we go to them," the FBI agent was quoted as saying.

Wiley Thompson, an FBI spokesman, in Washington, said the bureau could not comment. "Normally when it comes to foreign counterintelligence activities, we would not be in a position to discuss our program," he said. "I'm not at liberty to say whether we have talked to the universities."

One former government official familiar with U.S. security procedures said it is possible local FBI offices are taking the initiative in checking with universities.

They would be interested, he said, in some warning of events such as the defection of a Chinese interpreter in San Francisco last year, or the marriage of a visiting Chinese dancer to an American recently that resulted in what appeared to be the temporary detention of the dancer at the Chinese consulate in Houston.

Agents who make the initial contact appear reluctant to return when they get a hostile response. The teacher at Wisconsin, who asked that her name not be used because "I am a private person," said the agent she spoke to in mid-1979 did not return after she told him she would report the entire conversation to her chancellor.

Carl Jacobson, an administrator who handles problems of the five Chinese students at Oberlin College, said he was telephoned in September by an agent from the FBI's Cleveland office."It was very brief, sort of a glancing blow," he said.

"They wanted to know how many we had, where they came from, what they studied. They seemed to be trying to figure if I was a good contact or not." They ended by asking if they could call again. He said they could, but he has not been contacted since.

Calls to other universities with large Chinese student populations, such as Micigan, Berkeley and Columbia, failed to locate any official who had been contacted by the FBI, "although that doesn't mean there haven't been any," said Columbia University law proffessor Randle Edwards.

Campus officials said they had also been in contact with State Department officials about government restraints on Chinese research and security-related areas, such as high technology computers.

About half of the Chinese at U.S. universities are part of official exchanges. Most of them are older scientists doing short-term research of one or two years. They are thought less likely to remain in the United States because almost all have wives in China.

The others are students whose funding comes not from the government but from U.S. relatives and friends. They are younger, and usually expect to stay longer. University officials say they know of none whose visas have expired yet, but expect some to try to relocate permanently in the United States, a step some Chinese officials have tried to discourage.

One prominent official from the Chinese consulate in San Francisco visited a California campus and addressed all Chinese studying there at a meeting closed to non-Chinese. He warned them against romantic entanglements with non-Chinese, and against attending X-rated movies.

University officials throughout the country report their Chinese students adjusting well to American campus life, with some exceptions. Some still have trouble mastering the language, and many are annoyed when Americans asked them if they really want to go back to China.

"They realize how far behind China is, but they feel if someone looks down on China, then he looks down on them also," one American professor said. d

Some ideological assaults come from unexpected directions. About 10 Chinese students and scholars at a California campus, including some Communist Party members, accepted an invitation from a Chinese-American to spend a day at Disneyland all expenses paid. He said he wanted to show his gratituide for hospitality recently extended him in China.

The next morning, after spending the night with friends of the benefactor, all the Chinese were piled into cars and taken to a local fundamentalist Christian church. After the services, each was taken to a small Bible discussion group, which reminded some of the amused younger Chinese of the discussion groups they used to have in China on the works of Chairman Mao.

"I couldn't have thought of a worse method to win them over than that one," said an American friend of some of the students.