The University of California regents, who control what is believed to be the single largest university investment fund in the country, debated today whether to sell off its $2.4 billion investment in companies with South African subsidiaries.

As loudspeakers broadcast the proceedings to a crowd of protesters who had camped outside overnight, the regents spent nearly three hours on the topic.

In the first official meeting since students began a series of marches and sit-ins last month, U.C. Student Body president Pedro Noguera strongly pleaded for full divestiture of the South Africa-related companies. "Moral criteria for investments must supersede the desire to insure profitability and minimize risk," he said.

Edward Carter, who has been a regent for more than 30 years, chastised him. "I do not necessarily see any relationship between apartheid and our selling IBM," said Carter, chairman of Carter Hawley Hale Stores.

Regent Willie Brown, a black San Francisco attorney and speaker of the California Assembly, declared that American corporate investment directly helps maintain the South African government -- and that reducing that investment could not help but undermine it.

Robert Price, an authority on South Africa and political science professor at the Berkeley campus, briefly reviewed the history and philosophy of apartheid and warned the regents that they could no longer avoid a symbolic stance on the issue. "There no longer exists a neutral decision with respect to UC divestment," Price said.

Although he said he was not convinced that full divestiture was necessarily the best approach, Price declared that a "significant" withdrawal of investments from South Africa-related companies would send an important signal to the government in Pretoria. The university's retirement and endowment funds, which by last month were worth about $6.3 billion, include investments in 33 American companies with South African subsidiaries.

Should the regents adopt a more moderate stance, such as ridding the university of only a few of these investments, "this will be taken as an indication in South Africa that the international factor need not be taken seriously," Price said.

An exuberant and partisan audience packed the auditorium seats above the regents' long tables here, leaping up to applaud pro-divestment speakers and brandishing signs that bore such slogans as "Divest Blood" and "Apartheid is a Disease." Scores of helmeted police from jurisdictions around Berkeley lined up in formation outside the building.

As expected, no vote was taken; the 28 regents, who must approve any change in investment policy by a simple majority vote, are divided on the issue, with many declaring they are still undecided and cannot act until they receive a treasurer's report next month on the financial implications of divestiture. The meeting ended peacefully, with several hundred demonstrators pressing up against police lines to chant and hoot as black limousines sped away with the regents.

Eight protestors who circumvented police lines were arrested, bringing to more than 670 the total of students, faculty, clergy and community members arrested since pro-divestiture demonstrations began over a month ago.

Noguera, a sociology graduate student who has been among the leaders of those demonstrations, smiled as he told the regents that he knew they must be growing weary of the constant student protest. "Though I can sense that you are indeed tired," he said, "I must tell you that these protests, these demonstrations, these demands that the university divest will continue."

Vilma Martinez, a regent who is former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, smiled back at Noguera after the applause died down. "I and many other regents are delighted to learn that students care about issues other than themselves," she said. "It is not that we are tired, Mr. Noguera. We are simply older."