Thirty-seven college presidents called on their colleagues across the country yesterday to help address a "national emergency" in education by enhancing the status of teaching, increasing the number of minority teachers and working closely with elementary and secondary schools.

Led by Stanford University President Donald Kennedy, the presidents issued an open letter to 3,300 leaders in higher education, asking them to "act together as persistent and passionate advocates for reform."

The letter suggests that college presidents speak out on the importance of teaching, give higher priority to their schools of education and provide an example by improving teaching quality on their campuses.

Kennedy also said institutions should place higher value on teaching as a criterion for promotion. Colleges and universities have long been faulted for rewarding research over teaching quality in tenure decisions.

"The compelling argument of this report is that better schools require higher quality teachers," the letter said, "and to attract and hold higher quality teachers, teaching must become a true profession."

The action yesterday amounts to a symbolic, but noteworthy, entry of higher education into the school-reform debate. While reform of elementary and secondary schools has been an active topic for several years, the higher-education establishment has not played a significant role in it.

Among the college presidents who joined Kennedy were Richard Berendzen of American University, Martha E. Church of Hood College and Earle Richardson of Morgan State University.

"We perceive a national emergency -- an emergency rooted not in the failure of our schools but in the revolution of expectations about what our schools must accomplish," the letter said.

"To maintain and enhance our quality of life, we must develop a leading-edge economy based on workers who can think for a living," it said.

Kennedy, noting that about half of the nation's teachers are due to retire within the next decade, said there is an opportunity for higher education to greatly influence

the quality of the future teaching force.

"If the dynamics of a problem ever suggested a production-line solution, it's that one," he said.

To enhance the status of teaching, the letter recommends that institutions evaluate their schools of education, increase resources if necessary and increase the appointment of minority faculty.

The presidents also recommended new efforts to recruit minority students into teaching, pointing out that minority students soon will account for a third of all enrollment, while less than 5 percent of the teaching staff will be minorities.

The letter suggested increased financial assistance for minority students.

It also asked institutions to work with minority students early in their high school years and to make efforts to recruit minority students from two-year institutions.