For years, the University of Oklahoma, located here, and Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, 90 miles to the north, have been a source of pride to this state for their athletic teams.

The basketball dynasty Hank Iba built at OSU and the football powerhouse Bud Wilkinson constructed here at OU were as much status symbols for Sooners as Will Rogers' reputation as America's great folk humorist.

Today, in the toughest economic times this state has known since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, Oklahomans suddenly are looking at their universities as a source not of status but of salvation. And the changed perception may alter the politics of this state.

The change was symbolized by the ground-breaking ceremony here last weekend for the Weather Center of OU, seen by its sponsors as a prototype of the kind of high-technology research center the state needs.

A cooperative federal-state-private venture, it is the site of the NEXRAD -- Next Generation Weather Radar -- project, which could be a magnet for software, communication and meteorological companies eager to cash in on the growing demand for sophisticated weather forecasting data.

Oklahoma has more than its share of weather. The wind patterns and topography spawn more tornadoes in the state than anywhere else in the world -- an average of 200 sightings each decade. There are five officially classified "severe storms" in a typical year in the Oklahoma City-Norman metropolitan area.

Plans for the Weather Center were announced in December 1983, when Oklahoma was being buffeted by economic forces as devastating as its famous winds. Its economy, which grew a healthy 4.2 percent a year through the 1970s and accelerated to a heady 7.2 percent in 1981, saw its main props -- oil and gas and agriculture -- collapse.

A worldwide energy glut sent prices skidding. Every time the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cut its oil price $1 a barrel, says Stephen P. Matthews, director of the state economic development agency, Oklahoma tax revenues dropped $12 million.

In mid-1982, the collapse of the Penn Square Bank, heavily committed to oil-equipment loans, sent shock waves through the state banking system and beyond. Farmers here, as elsewhere, were slammed by declining commodity prices and a slump in land values that undermined the equity for their loans. In 1983, for the first time since World War II, state population and income declined.

Thinking that the problem was temporary, Gov. George Nigh (D) and the legislature cut spending across the board, 4 percent the first year and 6 percent the second. Teacher salaries at all levels have been frozen since July 1982, and Oklahoma earned the unhappy distinction of being the nation's only state to reduce spending for higher education in the past two years.

Today, there is growing consensus that Oklahoma -- which ranks 38th in the nation in average teacher salary, 37th in percentage of population with high school diplomas, 29th in percentage of taxes allocated to higher education and 28th in percentage of college graduates -- must invest in education if it is to have any economic future.

Nigh has reversed course and is making increased education financing, including a 6 percent boost in teachers' pay, a top priority. In an interview last week, he said, "I've learned that economic development is education, and education is economic development."

An important lesson came last year when Nigh was negotiating with the 3M Company for a major production facility -- a plant Oklahoma ultimately lost to Austin, Tex.

"They asked about taxes and the labor force, of course," he said, "but the question they kept coming back to -- and the question I couldn't answer -- was, 'What was our commitment to education?' "

The top political leaders of the state are now joining in to teach others the same lesson. Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), a former governor fresh from a landslide reelection victory, convened an unprecedented "summit conference" at the Shangri-La resort in northeastern Oklahoma on March 21 to talk about the state's economic future.

Boren invited Nigh; former governor and senator Henry Bellmon, the most respected Republican figure in the state; the leaders of both parties in the legislature; the presidents of OU and OSU; the publishers of the state's three leading newspapers and the chief executives of a dozen leading banks and businesses to the daylong "retreat."

Some of those present had long been political adversaries; the leaders from Tulsa and Oklahoma City had been more accustomed to rivalry than cooperation.

But after a briefing on Oklahoma's economic future by economists from the two universities, the conferees issued a unanimous statement pledging to work together to improve the state's economic climate and education system.

Boren said he came away "real upbeat" from the meeting and the participants' eagerness to have further sessions. His optimism was echoed by Nigh and Bellmon and the top educators, OSU President Lawrence Boger and OU interim president Martin C. Jischke. Boger, who has been in his job eight years, said, "I had never before heard business leaders saying that taxes have to be raised to finance quality education, and we'll pay our share."

Others are more skeptical. Noting that Bellmon, Boren and Nigh all passed up chances to raise taxes for education when they were governor, former legislator and now Oklahoma City banking official Cleta Detherage Mitchell said, "Oklahoma believes in schools, but not in education. Our voters want their kids to have degrees, but they don't much care what's behind them. In fact, they kind of hope they're not too much changed by going to college."

A senior faculty member at OU, voicing the same skepticism, said, "Oklahoma has underfunded education for years, because it's never understood the difference between a college and a university. We've tended to stop where real research and quality graduate education start."

The significance of Sunday's Weather Center ceremony is that the meteorology school here is an exception to the rule: a nationally recognized unit and a possible model for research-generated economic growth. Started in 1960 with a National Science Foundation grant and an Air Force contract, the nine-member meteorology department now brings in almost $4.8 million in outside grants and contracts, according to Frank Stehli, dean of the OU college of geosciences.

More importantly, it has become the linchpin for a complex of federal, state and private weather facilities that 15 months ago formed a nonprofit corporation, Applied Systems Inc., to hasten their overlapping research, technology and applications projects. With the prototype of NEXRAD, a Doppler radar system that will increase warning time for tornadoes and flash floods by a factor of five and allow far more complete monitoring of wind and rain, the Norman area can become a center for climatological and water resource management, two basics of Sun Belt growth.

As just one example, Jeff Kimpel, director of the meteorology school, said that more accurate and comprehensive rainfall measurement with the new system would enable reservoirs to be kept much closer to capacity, increasing the agricultural and industrial use of facilities.

"This is just a dimple," Stehli said, "but we hope to use it as a model for the governor, the legislature and the people to understand the multiplier effect in economic benefits from increased investment in education and research."

There are other examples, if the flow of funds continues. Here in Norman, a building housing the first two phases of the OU Energy Center -- a research and teaching facility for geologists and petroleum engineers -- is beginning to rise above ground level. "If we can do what we hope to do in enhanced oil recovery and advanced drilling techniques," Jischke said, "the economic benefits can be incalculable."

At OSU, where extension-service work made economic development a major focus long before most Oklahomans became aware of any need for such a strategy, the emphasis is on two projects: an envisioned $30 million Center for Research on Agriculture and Renewable Resources, which will examine genetic engineering, and a Center for International Trade and Development, which will help state industries move into export markets.

OSU also has a major part in a $5.8 million grant announced last month by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., designed to give Oklahoma the nation's most modern continuing-education system through improved telecommunications linking the major universities with local communities throughout the state.

But all of this, as Nigh is the first to concede, depends on the readiness of Oklahoma voters and politicians to put their money into the education sytem.

The signals are mixed. Last week, the state Senate voted to raise $70 million by raising license fees for pickup trucks. In a classic battle between education and road forces, the Senate leadership blocked a move to earmark most of the proceeds for county roads, thus saving $60 million for education.

But the truck-tag bill faces dubious prospects in the House. Late last week it voted against a proposal to guarantee state reimbursement of local revenues that may be lost if voters approve a tax-abeyance measure to attract industry on April 30. Without that guarantee that local school property tax funds won't be lost, teacher groups may oppose the referendum.

The major item on the ballot that day will be a proposed change in the formula for satisfying the constitutional requirement of a balanced budget, a change that would make $145 million more available for appropriation this year, most of it ticketed for education.

Nigh and others say that, even if the referendum passes, more taxes will be needed later. Jischke, the acting OU president, said, "I'm more optimistic than any time in the 17 years I've been here." But Boren cautioned that to "upgrade our education system from the elementary through the graduate level . . . we must work to change the cultural value system in our communities."

The April 30 vote will be the first test of Oklahoma's willingness to do that.