If this story were a college course taught by Dr. Michael G. Hansen, the political scientist who is the new director of the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, he might begin by challenging his students to analyze what these officials have in common:

Senior adviser for gold policy; chief of the U.S. national central bureau of INTERPOL; director of toroidal (doughnut-shaped) confinement systems for the Energy Department; chief of the Forest Service; commissioner of the Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Commission; director of Food for Peace.

The short answer is that they all are members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), the corps of top federal managers established by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. But what Hansen would want to know, his former students say, is, "What's missing here? What might unite these individuals?"

One answer to these broader questions is the Federal Executive Institute in Virginia, the government's residential training program for senior civil servants. It is, according to Constance Horner, Office of Personnel Management director, "the sole institution available to give the SES a strong sense of itself and its place in the U.S. government."

Hansen took over the institute in August, inheriting a troubled program with a big mission.

The institute, on 14 wooded acres outside Charlottesville, was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson 19 years ago to provide top-quality management training to the government's highest-ranking career workers. In its early years, it was on the leading edge of executive development, according to James Colvard, OPM deputy director.

By the 1980s, the leased building needed repair and staff infighting had undercut the program, Colvard said.

Former OPM director Donald J. Devine, concerned about "tremendous expenditures necessary to bring it up to a decent living standard" and unhappy with the quality and content of the curriculum, considered moving it, Devine recalled. His critics thought the move was a smoke screen for a homicide.

At the time, Edwin Meese III was counselor to President Reagan, and, Colvard said, Meese "decided, 'We will buy it. We will keep the concept.' "

Devine, a former college teacher with a strong interest in education, tried to change the curriculum. It provided, he said, "too much soft management and not enough hard -- too much psychology and

not enough business administration."

Devine, according to former OPM official Roger Pilon, wanted to get rid of what Pilon called "sensitivity training."

But before a new curriculum could be fully implemented, Devine was out as head of OPM -- withdrawing after it became clear he would not be confirmed for a second term.

Today, with 1 1/2 years left in her term, Horner, too, is focusing heavily on the institute.

After a national search for big-name director, Horner settled on Hansen. He was not her first choice, according to a source. Professors at the Ivy League schools she was courting would not accept the job, the source said.

But she appears delighted with Hansen, lending him prestige and authority to upgrade the institute, inviting him to weekly staff meetings -- access unheard of in the past -- and taking interest in his every maneuver.

Hansen was an assistant professor of public administration at American University when selected. While at AU, he directed the Key Executive Program, a master's program for federal executives that is highly regarded by its graduates and highly ranked among public administration programs.

Dorothy James, dean of AU's school of government and public administration, said Hansen had improved the diversity, prestige, quality, instruction and examination process of the Key Executive Program.

She said he was such a popular teacher that 60 of his former students -- more than half of the Key Executive enrollment during his tenure -- gathered on a steamy night in August to honor him.

Horner once visited Hansen's class almost by accident -- she was visiting academic programs attended by federal employes at the time she was seeking an FEI director. "I was very impressed by the sophistication and directness of his teaching," she said.

Horner, a former teacher, said it was the last day of Hansen's class and he was asking his student GS-14s and 15s what they had learned and how it might change their work methods.

"The interplay was both intellectual and personal," she said. "He achieved a balance. Good education occurs neither at the excessively personal or the excessively cerebral or rational end of the spectrum -- but closer to the rational end."

Bettie White was one of Hansen's students. "Mike was real supportive," she said. "He was warm and friendly and at the same time really strict. He did not like it if anybody came in late, and he had a low threshold for not meeting deadlines and a low tolerance for anything that wasn't the best."

The program required federal executives, who retained their full-time jobs, to attend classes every other Friday and Saturday for almost two years before graduating.

" 'You want this degree to mean something?' " White recalled Hansen saying when the students moaned about the reading and papers required.

White, an equal employment manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was using what she had learned from Hansen when she was interrupted for an interview. She was drafting a five-year plan for NASA managers to fully use the "pool of minority talent the agency invested in 10 years ago."

Agriculture Department employe Charles (Rex) Hartgraves marched into Hansen's class, at age 48, "scared to death." Hansen "would listen and make you feel like you could really do it," he said.

Hartgraves is in many ways a classic example of the kind of student Hansen will increasingly face at FEI: a civil servant with a technical background promoted into a job requiring business administration skills.

Hartgraves has a degree in agriculture from New Mexico State University. He has spent much of his career managing national forests, worrying about what he called "biology" -- range management, watersheds, wildlife, timber. Three months into Hansen's program, he was promoted to associate deputy chief for administration at the Forest Service. This job requires knowledge of finance, procurement, computer systems, law enforcement, administrative law, Congress and the White House. Hartgraves said that every day, he uses what he has learned.

Horner has directed Hansen to study everything from the physical plant of the institute to the curriculum. "I want him to make it the flagship academy and the flagship experience for members of the SES," she said.

"FEI is good. I think it can be great," Hansen said. "It has weathered a storm."

Hansen has been moving around the country wearing a button, "FEI Is Back." He's been rewriting recruitment brochures, appointing committees of prominent scholars in public administration to study the curriculum, hiring hotel consultants to improve accommodations.

He has promised to throw out the second-rate soap bars famous among institute graduates as a symbol of the government trying to operate on the cheap.

"I think executive development should be demanding," Hansen said, adding that, at the same time, "executive training must convey to participants that the government for which they work values them and that what they do is important."