Researchers at the University of Florida began their mission -- to quench the thirst of the school's Gator football team -- by analyzing the mineral content of the players' sweaty uniforms. Now the university earns $1 million in profits a year from thegreen-tinged drink they developed: Gatorade.

The University of Maine at Machias has begun marketing the state's outdoorsy L.L. Bean image, a tactic that has boosted enrollment by one-third. Brochures promoting "The Maine Experience" offer credit to students who study wildlife as they sail Penobscot Bay or canoe the St. Croix River.

At George Mason University in Fairfax, a bearded English professor with a doctorate in medieval literature has cut back on Chaucer to operate a profitable microwave television service. The company sells four cable channels to businesses and offices around cable-starved Washington.

The ivory towers of academia, once reserved for the lofty pursuit of scholarship, are turning more and more to the more practical pursuits of business.

"Everybody used to think there was this great difference between business and universities because one is profit and one nonprofit," said Richard Cyert, president of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "But I'm as interested in the bottom line as they are."

Colleges and universities -- like a host of other nonprofit institutions -- are borrowing the tactics of their corporate counterparts in an effort to survive harsh economic realities: declining enrollment, cuts in federal funding and increased competition. They are bringing in business experts, tightening fiscal management, seeking partnerships with business, computerizing their fund-raising operations and urging faculty to conduct lucrative research. In some cases, they are cutting out unpopular programs in favor of those that draw many students.

"Academia is no longer viewed as a quiet, sleepy place, with people puffing pipes and reading Plato," said American University President Richard Berendzen. "We're now very businesslike."

Berendzen and others say that new management strategies have saved some institutions and strengthened others. "We're simply trying to get the maximum result from our dollar. I don't see how that can hurt," he said.

But critics point to potential hazards. They say there is a heightened dependence on corporate- and government-sponsored research, and that professors, under pressure to bring in such grants, are spending less time teaching. Also, these critics claim, the collected dollars support applied research while basic research suffers. Faculty worry that more powerful business offices are gaining too much control over university decisions. Shift From Humanities

Meanwhile, scholars bemoan the loss of the liberal arts tradition. They say universities, competing for a still dwindling number of students, are shifting resources from humanities to the more popular professional and technical programs.

Institutions have applied the corporate model in varying degrees:

Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota, has nearly doubled its number of applicants through an aggressive direct-mail campaign that last year reached more than 100,000 high school students. Carleton literature is usually the first to reach prospective students. And its solicitations are targeted -- based on sophisticated market research -- to appeal to the differing interests of East Coast, West Coast and in-state students.

East Coast students are told of the college's high academic standing; letters to West Coast students describe Carleton's attractive geographic setting, and Minnesota students are reminded that the school is not just a local institution but is recognized nationally.

The barrage of targeted mail, said Dean of Admissions Richard Steele, is aimed at getting a "good match" between school and student. "It's certainly not hucksterism."

Officials at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., expect to save more than $10,000 a year through a unique "motion detection" system they installed this year. The device turns off classroom lights after two minutes if there is no movement in the room.

The University of Maryland, in partnership with a private firm, has moved into the development arena by building a 466-acre computer research park in Bowie. The Maryland Science and Technology Center is expected to bring the university at least $2 million to $3 million annually in rents and spinoff contracts.

Since he was appointed 13 years ago, Carnegie-Mellon's Cyert has turned a $1.4 million deficit into a $100,000 annual surplus, nearly doubled the university's endowment and raised several departments to national prominence. He engineered the recovery by old-fashioned streamlining -- firing custodial workers, for example -- and he relied heavily on strategic planning to eliminate some departments and strengthen others. Out of the Ivory Tower

As academic strategies have changed, so have the institutions. Admissions offices that once enrolled a homogeneous student body now court all ages and backgrounds, offering night classes and quickie "how-to" courses to lure older, part-time students. Many institutions are less often elitist and isolated, and more often involved in community activities and government and corporate circles.

"It's goodbye to the ivory tower," said Baltimore education consultant George Keller. "The modern university is like a public library, where people dip in and out."

Michael Kelley, the entrepreneurial George Mason professor, sees no threat. "There's still plenty of room in the university for quiet reflection," he said. "Life isn't all quiet reflection."

There are several explanations for the change. Like other nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities have been affected by the economic climate and federal funding cuts. Between 1980 and 1985, federal aid to higher education dropped by a total of $500 million.

But higher education also has had to deal with declining enrollment, with full-time students dropping from 7.3 million to 6.8 million since 1983. This follows dramatic growth in the past three decades, when degree candidates quadrupled and the number of institutions nearly doubled.

"We have too many colleges," said Marina Buhler-Miko, a Washington education consultant who uses strategic planning to help colleges distinguish themselves from other institutions.

"Colleges are begging for students. They're market-driven by the need for students," said David Riesman, education expert and professor emeritus at Harvard University. "Students are now courted the way athletes have been." Popularity Wins

This results in what many scholars say is the worrisome trend of eliminating programs with low enrollments, often in the humanities, in favor of more popular courses, currently business, engineering and the sciences. At Carnegie-Mellon, for example, Cyert's strategic planning process led him to close the education department and merge the language and history departments, while building up computer science and other technical programs.

Loss of the liberal arts tradition has concerned academics as celebrated as U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett. While chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bennett issued a report that found "too many students are graduating . . . lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge" of humanities, and that fewer institutions are requiring humanities courses of all their students.

Also, the percentage of students majoring in humanities has dropped dramatically: from 1970 to 1982, the number went down by 57 percent in English, by 41 percent in philosophy and by 62 percent in history. Faddism or Consumerism?

A report from the Association of American Colleges released this year was also critical. "The curriculum has given way to a marketplace: It is a supermarket where students are shoppers and professors are merchants of learning. Fads and fashions, the demands of popularity and success, enter where wisdom and experience should prevail."

There is another faction, however, that praises the new attention to students. Jana B. Matthews, president of a Colorado-based education consulting service, characterized the recent change in academic management as "a major leap forward . . . . People are tending to think more of the consumer, the student, the needs . . . and demands of the external environment."

Critics of the new management style are often faculty members afraid they are losing their traditional power base to the budget office and management-minded administrators.

At American University, for example, Berendzen has been praised for improving the financial picture -- he has more than doubled the college endowment -- but he has been criticized for expanding and giving what detractors say is too much power to the management staff.

"There is a strong sense among faculty that too much money is being spent on administration," said Mary Gray, a computer science and mathematics professor at AU.

"In the sense it's become more businesslike, that's all to the good," she said. "But there is a danger of decision-making getting . . . out of the hands of faculty and to the administrators . . . There's a professional class of managers, and there's too many of them."

Faculty members are also leery about what they see as new pressure to bring in revenue, usually in the form of corporate- or government-sponsored research.

Larry Leslie, a professor and director of the Center for Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said faculty members often take instruction time to write grant proposals and conduct research, leaving assistants to teach their classes. "The institution is interested in getting as much as they can out of the faculty," he said. "There's a lot more pressure to bring in outside money than emphasis on classroom quality."

The stepped-up quest for research dollars also threatens basic research, the traditional focus of academic inquiry, said Leonard Minsky, director of the Washington-based National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest.

"Whenever a corporation or the military asks that research be done, they ask that it be done from a practical point of view. There has to be a payoff," he said. "If you start with the criteria being a payoff, you narrowly restrict your science to the pragmatic. The creativity of the university is threatened."