In the 11 days since University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died, top university administrators have met almost daily, in the privacy of the chancellor's wood-paneled office, to ask painful questions raised by the cocaine-related death of the school's most celebrated athlete.

College Park Chancellor John B. Slaughter and his advisers face a critical matter: protecting the university's recently upgraded image and academic prestige while the campus is consumed with police investigations, allegations of drug use and academic problems among athletes.

At this crossroads, few believe the institution will be crippled. However, legislators and educators agree that if the incident is not handled properly, it could leave a lasting scar and negate recent progress in erasing the school's image as a mediocre agricultural college.

"If we don't use it as an opportunity to make some changes, it could be a black mark on the university," said House of Delegates Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore).

Today, the university's board of regents is to convene a special meeting on issues related to the Bias case.

For the regents and for Maryland, much is at stake: With 38,000 students, the College Park campus is the sixth largest public university in the nation. Although the university has several smaller, less-well-known campuses, College Park is the state's flagship campus, with a $330 million operation that incorporates a $10 million, self-supporting athletic program.

For years, many of the state's brightest students shunned the college for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore or left the state.

But in recent years, several departments at the College Park campus have gained national ranking, the academic qualifications of its entering students have risen significantly and a special fund has been established to draw outstanding faculty.

An abundance of qualified applicants this year forced officials to close student admissions in March, the earliest ever.

Cardin and many others point emphatically to what they say is a sad reality: Drug use on college campuses and academic problems among athletes are common across the country. "Obviously it's not good news for the university, but it's something all universities have to deal with," said Cardin.

An internal audit and controversial lawsuit at the University of Georgia this year focused public attention on academic abuses among athletes there. And a federal grand jury investigating drug trafficking is expected to indict some athletes at the University of Virginia, school and police officials said last week.

In this context, many close to the university play down the likelihood that Maryland will be seen as a campus infested by drug use or academic abuse in its athletic programs.

"If we're going to indict the University of Maryland for that, then we're going to have to indict just about every other major university in this country," said David Mister, past president of the university system's alumni association. Despite such loyalty, Slaughter and other officials acknowledge that they are in delicate territory.

"The image of the university can't help but be affected," Slaughter said in an interview last week. " . . . The dimensions of the Bias tragedy have taken on colors that have had a number of negative consequences for the university."

In a Washington Post poll conducted June 21-25, 44 percent of the 1,656 respondents said they believed that the use of illegal drugs such as cocaine by athletes is a widespread problem at the University of Maryland, while 11 percent said it was not a widespread problem.

Yet 70 percent said the use of drugs among university athletes was typical of large universities. The poll's margin of error theoretically is less than 3 percentage points.

Mister, who last year sat on an advisory panel for university athletics, expressed disappointment that athletes representing the university may become known as drug users. But he cited the university's voluntary drug testing program for athletes and cautioned administrators against precipitous policy changes to satisfy public opinion.

"It would be absolutely wrong . . . if the university administration did anything significant in terms of changing policies because of this one incident" without taking a "careful, deliberate" review of the situation, he said.

Sheldon Knorr, who as state commissioner for higher education oversees the university system, last week asked university President John Toll to appoint a special committee to investigate allegations leveled after Bias' death.

"If it's handled properly, in terms of looking at the problems realistically and dealing with whatever is found, I think the damage will be minimal," Knorr said. "But if it's left to hang and there's all sorts of innuendo about the extent of drug use, I think it could be very damaging."

Slaughter, who has been a leader in efforts to reform college athletics and heads the NCAA Presidents Commission appointed for that purpose, pledged last week to remove the responsibility for academic counseling of athletes from the athletic department.

"I would hope we would emerge as a stronger, more caring institution . . . a model program in terms of intercollegiate athletics," he said.

Like large public universities around the nation, Maryland has struggled with its institutional identity, attempting to balance athletic and academic interests.

The university was in its athletic heyday during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when, under football coach Jim Tatum, it won a national championship and went to three major bowl games in five years. But that era of athletic emphasis -- the university gave more athletic than academic scholarships -- ended under the administration of university president Wilson Elkins in the mid-1950s.

In the late 1960s, the university once again pushed for athletic excellence and instituted a program of academic counseling for athletes. The practice was upgraded under Slaughter and Athletic Director Dick Dull, and today the university has five academic counselors for its athletes.

Nevertheless, reports since Bias' death have shown lingering academic problems among athletes. Bias passed none of his courses during his spring semester, and four of his teammates last season flunked out.

At the same time, the university under Toll and Slaughter has made significant progress in upgrading its overall academic standing.

The average combined Scholastic Aptitude Test score for entering freshman has risen from 962 in 1978 to 1,008 in 1985, out of a possible score of 1,600.

In a recent ranking by the National Academy of Sciences, 13 programs at the College Park campus were rated among the top 20 for public universities. Its economics, engineering, computer science and physics departments are among the best in the country, according to the rankings.

In an effort to draw the state's brightest high school seniors, the university instituted a "chancellor's scholarship" program about five years ago. At the same time, a fund to draw top-flight faculty members was created. In fiscal 1987, the College Park campus will receive $285,000 in state funds to enhance its regular faculty salary budget.

Improvement has been made in spite of chronic underfunding, school officials say. The State Board for Higher Education reported two years ago that the university's library collection reflected half the resources of its peer institutions in almost every category, and funding per student averaged 27 percent below that at institutions of similar size.

Nevertheless, said state Del. Nancy K. Kopp (D-Montgomery), a member of the state Commission on Excellence in Education, state residents are beginning to look more favorable at sending their children to the university. She added, however, "I think the image is lagging behind the reality. We have a larger proportion of outstanding faculty and high-caliber students than the average Maryland citizen realizes."

It is that image problem that has troubled Slaughter in recent days.

"We're all trying to overcome years and years of traditional thinking," he said, then expressing his determination to steer the school through the investigations and soul-searching spawned by Bias' death.

"We've got some hard work ahead," he said. "This is not the first time we've encountered difficulty. It may be the most sorrowful."

Staff writer Mark Asher contributed to this report.