At Harvard University, law students taking tax courses help local residents prepare their tax returns free of charge, while other student volunteers pour into Boston's inner-city schools to help disadvantaged youngsters learn to read.

In the South Bronx, students with learning disabilities in 15 public schools are being introduced to computers through a program sponsored by New York University.

And in the Mexican-American barrios of Redwood City and East Palo Alto, Stanford University students are helping their poorer neighbors through a legal clinic and a social services program.

Across the country, universities are reaching out beyond their walls into surrounding communities. They are building housing projects, aiding the elderly, tutoring students, running soup kitchens and providing the backbone for community blood drives.

This increasing community involvement -- particularly in public school systems -- is defying the traditional image of the town and the gown in a state of perpetual conflict, a natural tension that historically has led some colleges to view themselves as city-states isolated from often-hostile communities.

This community activism also belies the popular perception of modern-day students as more politically apathetic and conservative than their 1960s counterparts.

"It's a different type of activism," said John Shattuck, Harvard's vice president for government, community and public affairs. "In the '60s and early '70s, they were taking on global issues. Now the activism is community-based."

Not only are the universities more interested in their communities, but localities also are more receptive to the help colleges can provide. "The universities have given a little, but the state and local governments have also given some," Shattuck said.

"The states that have a lot of universities now recognize that there is a link between academics and high technology," which every state is trying to woo, he said.

The most dynamic area of university involvement in communities has been in the public school system.

"One of the common threads is teaching," said Stanford news director Bob Beyers. "Universities are reaching into the public schools . . . . They see the schools as being in trouble, so they're trying to help out."

Universities' involvement in their neighboring public schools -- particularly through their graduate schools of education -- has traditionally swung from hands-on activism to benign neglect, reflecting demographic shifts and shifting societal moods.

Following a flurry of activity in the public schools in the 1960s -- efforts that in many places failed -- education schools retreated.

"In the 1970s, there was a strong feeling in the schools of education that there were more important issues than schooling," said Patricia Albjerg Graham, a former public school teacher who is dean of Harvard's Education School. "Most often they got rid of the name 'school of education' and became 'centers of resource management,' or they got into psychology, or interested in the effects of television on children."

The retreat coincided with a nationwide surplus of teachers, which contributed to a drop in applicants to education schools. With the job market flooded with teachers, education schools turned their attention from training teachers to educational research.

But by the start of the 1980s, the mood once again started to shift toward more involvement in local schools. A shortage of a million new teachers was forecast by 1990. And a new body of research produced evidence that good schools could make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged youngsters.

In that changed atmosphere, Harvard President Derek Bok and Stanford President Donald Kennedy convened a meeting of university presidents and the deans of the nation's largest teacher-training schools to assess the need to upgrade schools of education.

Much of the universities' current effort in the public schools grew out of that meeting.

"It marked a greater sense of awareness on the part of schools of education at major research universities that they ought to take more interest in the schools," Graham said, "and the best place to start was in their own communities."

Perhaps the most dramatic example of university concern about schools was Boston University President John R. Silber's unprecedented offer last month to take over Boston's troubled public school system and run it more efficiently. The Boston School Committee declined the offer.

At Harvard, the involvement is less dramatic. A "principals center" brings school principals onto campus for meetings and workshops, while a separate educational technology center takes Harvard into classrooms in four area school districts. A separate program teaches writing in the Cambridge public schools, while another project allows beginning teachers who switch from other fields to complete their student-teaching under Harvard's auspices.

At Stanford, Kennedy in 1982 initiated a "Stanford in the Schools" project to involve the school of education and the local public school systems as equal partners in the reform effort.

Besides public school activism, much of the community involvement by universities has centered on industrial parks. Yale University and the University of Michigan have invested heavily in industrial and research parks. Stanford's 600-acre industrial park, the premier park associated with a U.S. university, employs 20,000 people in 90 companies and provides the northern anchor of Silicon Valley.