To one professor from Berkeley, President Reagan is an old actor living out his favorite movie roles; to another, a master political strategist who has flummoxed the Democrats.
To their University of California colleague from the Davis campus, he's "the most successful political leader since Franklin D. Roosevelt."
A scholar from Stanford asserts that there is no Teflon protecting Reagan's reputation, while a professor from George Washington University wonders "how a person so inattentive to detail, so ignorant of facts, so disengaged and so willing to delegate can be viewed as a success by the public and the Washington power-brokers."
Four scholars who voted for Reagan agree in a panel discussion that he has done little to establish the intellectual or political bases for long-term conservative dominance, while another finds it ironic that while Calvin Coolidge's portrait hangs in the White House, Reagan "spends his second-term political capital defending Social Security and other relics of the New Deal."
Praising Reagan's "mastery" in dealing with Congress, the public and the news media but finding him "the major component" of policy deadlocks on fiscal and foreign policy, Norman C. Thomas of the University of Cincinnati says, "My assessment is schizophrenic."
He has lots of company in that regard among the scholars of the presidency who are here this weekend for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.
These experts are just as divided as a cross-section of Congress in their judgments on Reagan's record and the outlook for the rest of his second term.
Many of them are Democrats, and they acknowledge that they oppose large parts of Reagan's agenda, but in their comments they link him to Roosevelt, the inventor of the modern presidency and a Democratic folk-hero.
"Of the presidents since FDR," said Fred Greenstein of Princeton, "Reagan is clearly most like him." Greenstein called Roosevelt and Reagan "dramatist presidents, with the same obvious love and delight in appearing before large audiences."
He conceded that Roosevelt was "avid for information, while Reagan, if he has that trait, has kept it well-hidden." But he cautioned Reagan's detractors that "FDR did little policy analysis of his economic programs' probable effects. He tried them and waited to see what happened."
Reagan's record of big budget deficits was the most frequent source of criticism from the political scientists and was the basis for the most pessimistic predictions about his place in history.
Larry Berman of the University of California-Davis said -- at the end of a panel with Greenstein, Thomas, Stephen Wayne of George Washington University, John H. Kessel of Ohio State and Richard Brody of Stanford -- that about their only agreement was that runaway deficits and the stalemate on arms control "are just waiting to ruin Ronald Reagan and his reputation in history."
The criticism of the president's role in fiscal policy was bipartisan. New Yorker Barber B. Conable Jr., who retired in January as ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee and is teaching at the University of Rochester, told a session Friday that "the budget problem is not being solved because the high priest Reagan is running around saying everything is okay."
"I must say," Conable added, "that Reagan has a much greater capacity for governing than he has exercised in the past year. He is opting for current popularity, rather than a place in history which would be impregnable."
Thomas E. Cronin of Colorado College, a one-time Democratic congressional candidate, told the audience he agreed with Conable, adding, "Presidents have their greatest leverage in the first six to 12 months after their election, and he's not using it."
Meanwhile, Michael Rogin of the University of California-Berkeley delivered a paper implying that his colleagues were taking Reagan far too literally.
In a talk illustrated with slides from old Reagan films, Rogin argued that Reagan is best understood in terms of his sympathetic movie roles. "When Reagan insists that taxes will be raised 'over my dead body' and then hopes that no one takes him literally, he is speaking the truth," Rogin said. "He hopes that people will take him symbolically so that when taxes are raised they will feel that he is suffering with them."
Aaron Wildavsky, a Berkeley colleague, offered a completely different view. He said in an interview that the critics were missing the art of Reagan's budget policy.
Calling the president a "first-class strategist," Wildavsky said, "He's taken away the rationale for the Democrats continuing to do good deeds with other people's money. He's substituted his tax cuts for their spending, and he's forced them to adopt the ideology of the balanced budget."
However, Wildavsky said he thought Reagan made a tactical error in shooting down the Senate Republican leadership's compromise budget and -- like many of his colleagues -- said he worried that "there is no strategy in foreign policy you can discern."
Ironically, some of the harshest criticism of Reagan came at a panel outside the main meeting schedule, organized by a group of conservative scholars.
Panel chairman Werner Dannhauser of Cornell University said after the discussion on post-Reagan conservatism, "We have very little optimism about the long-range trend. We are very cautious, even gloomy."
George Friedman of Dickinson College said the administration's promotion of prayer in school and of drug crackdowns were causing "a real schism on the right" and driving libertarian conservatives "into the political wasteland."
In foreign policy, said Myron Rush of Cornell, "taking a hard line and spending heavily on defense have been used as a substitute for a deep analysis of the Soviet threat and the development of a counterstrategy."
Thomas Pangle of the University of Toronto, who, like the others on this panel, said he voted for Reagan in both elections, commented: "Reagan's administration has made no real contribution to conservatism as a philosophy of government . . . . There is still a good deal of political energy in the Republican Party, but, intellectually, this has been a barren administration . . . It has not put down roots."