With much substance, even more symbolism and almost total unanimity, an NCAA special convention today approved the most severe penalties enacted against chronic cheaters.

As a result of today's vote, if an institution found guilty of a major violation in any sport in the last five years commits a new major violation after Sept. 1, even in another sport, it would lose some or all of its games for up to two years in the offending program. Suspending a program for two years was referred to here as the "death penalty."

The vote was 427-6. Bryn Mawr (a women's school), Texas, Texas A&M, Southern Methodist, Wisconsin and San Diego State dissented.

Today's agenda was seen as the first major test of the new NCAA Presidents Commission, which is in the forefront of a drive by university presidents to regain control of their athletic programs. Walter Byers, executive director of the NCAA, called today "an historic moment in intercollegiate athletics."

"It was an auspicious beginning by chief executive officers of higher education to take control of athletic policy and to set the standards of conduct they expect from their employes," Byers said. "The presidents and chancellors are prepared to stay the course. They are not in it for a quick fix, assume everything is going to come out right and not pay any more attention to it."

This convention considered issues of ethics and institutional control, and the eight proposals of the Presidents Commission passed. The smallest majority was 96.79 percent, on the proposal calling for external audits of programs.

Texas voted against requiring a self-study of programs every five years, against making institutions report grades, progress reports and board scores for recruits and all athletes, and against all parts of the proposal concerning cheaters. L.O. Morgan, Texas' faculty representative, said he did so because he felt the self-study involved duplication of paperwork, the reporting of grades and board scores violated athletes' privacy and the cheating proposals did not offer due process.

L. Donald Shields, president of Southern Methodist, said his vote against stiffer penalties should not be construed as a vote in favor of cheating, but as a vote against a lack of due process. "I don't believe the ends justify the means," he said. "My concern would have been the same if I were president at SMU or chancellor at Cal-Berkeley."

He had few allies, however.

"The presidents have made up their minds that enough is enough," said Joe Paterno, football coach at Penn State and a reform leader among coaches. " . . . It's about time."

Coach Jackie Sherrill of Texas A&M said of today's votes: "There's a word here and there you might object to. But as a total package, no."

The most important aspect of today's votes was the emergence of the Presidents Commission as a viable vehicle for reformers, according to the Rev. Timothy Healy, president of Georgetown University. "It's working within the framework of the NCAA," he said. "We have about four more years of work to do, but the vote today was staggering."

Edward Foote II, president of Miami (Fla.) and one of the NCAA's most severe critics, said he no longer feels the need for a separate Board of Presidents to govern Division I-A. He said he agrees with reform leaders who will let the Division I members of the Presidents Commission act informally as a steering committee.

"The job is to set up a system and deal with the problems continually, not when it reaches the bursting point," he said.

Michael Heyman, president at Cal-Berkeley, said, "We've got to keep it up, and it'll get harder. The next convention will be interesting; we'll see if the momentum continues."

Although resolutions were passed today instructing the NCAA Council to develop proposals to punish athletes who knowingly cheat and to limit basketball schedules in the future, the leading items expected to be considered at the annual convention in January involve Proposition 48 and drug testing.

There also will be a move to rule freshmen ineligible, but many presidents say that prospect is economically unrealistic.

Many presidents see their ability to keep intact Proposition 48 (which sets minimum test scores and a 2.0 average in a core curriculum of 11 academic subjects as standards for first-year eligibility) as the major test they will face.

An NCAA committee studying compromises that would affect less severely the 16 historically black institutions in Division I has been unable to reach a solution. The committee will meet July 1 in Washington, and reform leaders will ask it to approve an indexing plan developed by a mathematician.

"It does a better job of identifying the academic risks, both white and black, which was the purpose of Proposition 48 in the first place," said the Rev. Ed Glynn, president of St. Peter's College.

"As important as this meeting was, the real key will be the January meeting because of the potential for the derailment of Proposition 48 at that meeting," said Art Padilla, assistant vice president for academic affairs of the University of North Carolina system.

The proposal concerning repeat violators also defines secondary and major violations and tries to streamline the enforcement process. The external audits give presidents a mechanism to inspect the books of their booster clubs, but many of the other proposals serve as little more than window dressing. But Byers said it was needed.

"The plain fact of the matter is that there is no way the NCAA can enforce the legislation the institutions adopt unless there is a high level of support and compliance," Byers said.

"There's a rejuvenation of the spirit and desire to conduct an honorable program. It gives support to the coaches who want to run an honorable program and don't want to be dragged down into . . . cheating to be competitive.

"Will that hardcore minority element get the message? Are they going to hear the message? I don't know how it could be sent any more loudly."