PRAIRIE VIEW, TEX. -- When physicists Dennis Judd and David Wagoner describe their proposal for work on the $8 billion Superconducting Super Collider, they gleefully rub their hands like two whiz-kid hackers who have successfully infiltrated their high school's computer system and changed "F" grades to "A."

"Our success isn't exactly subversive," Wagoner said, with an exultant grin. "But the fact that our little land-grant, mainly black college beat all the big players to the punch on this project has definitely bruised some egos."

Both are faculty members at Prairie View A&M, a historically underfunded university of 6,000 students, 85 percent of whom are black. The school heads a consortium of 14 universities that has submitted a proposal to the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission (TNRLC), the super collider's umbrella organization, for a Particle Detector Research Center.

The super collider is designed to whirl protons around a 54-mile circular tunnel filled with superconducting magnets. When they approach the speed of light, the protons would be guided into collisions. Physicists hope that these tiny but highly energetic explosions will reveal the fundamental building blocks of matter.

The particle detectors on whose construction Prairie View hopes to collaborate would track reactions between quarks and gluons, proton constituents that theoretically would separate during the collisions.

Judd and Wagoner, who conceived the project, said they expect TNRLC approval next month. The $33.2 million center would be located on Prairie View's campus, which lies isolated among soybean fields and cow pastures 40 miles northwest of Houston.

Prairie View's potential involvement with the super collider was a selling point for Texas during the Energy Department's site-selection process, Judd said.

"Traditionally, the largest grants go to the big prestige universities, the ones with established track records," he said. "And they're usually mostly white."

But with Prairie View, "Texas was able to say, 'Look, if you put {the SSC} in Texas, you not only get the advantage of our land and research facilities but you'll have blacks and minorities involved,' " Wagoner said.

The Texas constitution created only two "institutions of the first class" -- the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University -- and made them sole beneficiaries of research money from the state's Available University Fund (AUF). In 1984, however, Texas voters adopted a constitutional amendment intended to compensate Prairie View for funding imbalances, which legislators agreed stemmed from discriminatory practices.

"Just imagine, Prairie View is supposed to receive the same treatment as UT and A&M," Judd said, his voice full of wonder. The amendment "required a change in mentality toward an emphasis on research, which is unfamiliar territory for a lot of people here. Prairie View has traditionally been oriented around teaching. There are a lot of people who want to keep it that way. They don't like what we're doing in the physics department," Judd said.

Asked why, Judd shrugged. "Here," he said, pulling down a excerpt from an article about black journalist Tony Brown that he keeps tacked to his office bulletin board. "This might explain it."

Under the caption "A New Kind of Slavery," the excerpt begins: "{Brown} says American blacks are crippled by a self-imposed 'psychological slavery' that keeps them from achieving success. The myth: 'If white America doesn't provide an opportunity for them, they won't have one. . . . ' "

Judd added, "Many members of the administration and faculty are waiting for someone to show them how to do something or give them something. They don't realize that to get what you want, you have to go out, find sources and make your demands. . . . The reasons for this are historical. People here haven't been forced to be competitive before."

Others disagree. "The resistance isn't to research per se," said Willie Trotty, a veteran education professor at Prairie View. "It's the kind of research that's the topic of discussion. Work like what they're doing in the physics department receives a lot of funding. It's high visibility and prestigious. But those members of the faculty who research for teaching purposes don't get the same kind of grants" and corresponding recognition, Trotty said.

Originally named the "Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youths," Prairie View opened in 1878 after the state constitution specified that "separate schools shall be provided for the white and colored children, and impartial provisions shall be made for both." White students attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, which was established in 1871 and later renamed Texas A&M.

The 1984 constitutional amendment directed that $6 million go annually from the AUF to Prairie View for 10 years. Normally two-thirds of those funds go to UT-Austin and one-third to Texas A&M. Last year, UT-Austin received about $165 million for research, more than twice as much as Texas A&M.

So, in 1987, Judd and Wagoner were recruited from Florida A&M University and given a mandate: Wring the most from their portion of the $6 million and put Prairie View in serious competition for work on the super collider, slated for construction 200 miles northwest near Waxahachie in Ellis County. Prairie View became the nation's only historically black university with a high-energy physics team.

"We've got an ethnically diverse group -- a Korean, a Canadian, a black and a man from Iowa," Judd said jokingly. Joining him and Wagoner, the man from Iowa, are Kwang Paick and Lon Turnbull.

Their plan is called HEP-tuples.

HEP stands for "high energy physics," while a tuple is "a mathematical term which describes a relationship between objects," Wagoner said. "In our case, it describes the relationship between the 14 universities" in the proposed consortium.

"We came up with the idea of pairing seven small, minority institutions with seven mainstream, research-oriented universities," he said. Because universities outside Texas are involved, the proposal meets federal criteria and, because six of the universities are from Texas, much of the $100 million raised to attract the super collider project will stay in Texas, making the proposal politically attractive here, he added.

Prairie View is paired with the University of Houston. Also "tupled" in the consortium are Howard University and Johns Hopkins University.

"We're delighted with what Prairie View is proposing," said physicist Peter McIntyre of consortium-member Texas A&M. "We think it serves a vital part of the mission. We don't begrudge them their success."